Culture October 29, 2020

Duchess Meghan wins bid to delay trial in privacy lawsuit against UK tabloid

WATCH: Prince Harry and Meghan declare financial independence

Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, scored a win Thursday in her legal battle with Associated Newspapers Ltd., the publishers of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday.

High Court Justice Mark Warby agreed to Meghan's lawyers' request to postpone the trial, citing a “confidential” reason which was discussed in a private hearing Thursday morning.

The trial, which was scheduled to begin in January, is now expected to start one year from now, in October or November 2021.

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Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex meets children as she attends the Commonwealth Day Service 2020 on March 09, 2020 in London, England.

“The right decision in all the circumstances is to grant the application to adjourn," Warby said in court. "That means that the trial date of January 11 2021 will be vacated and the trial will be refixed for a new date in the autumn."

Warby also on Thursday dismissed Meghan’s application for permission to appeal against a previous decision that "Finding Freedom," a book about her and Prince Harry's departure from official royal duties, could be included as evidence by the Mail On Sunday’s publisher.

Meghan is suing Associated Newspapers for alleged copyright infringement, misuse of private information and breach of the Data Protection Act after the Mail on Sunday and the Mail Online published parts of a handwritten letter she had sent to Thomas Markle in August 2018.

The letter, which addressed the breakdown in relations between Meghan and her now estranged father, was reproduced by Associated Newspapers in five articles in February 2019.

Here is what to know about Meghan's lawsuit, and what is expected to happen next.

Why is the Duchess of Sussex suing Associated Newspapers?

Meghan is suing Associated Newspapers, the parent company of The Mail on Sunday and MailOnline, over five articles published in February 2019 that included excerpts from a private letter she sent to her now-estranged father, Thomas Markle. The duchess is seeking damages from the newspaper for alleged misuse of private information, copyright infringement and breach of the Data Protection Act.

The letter, which is the focal point of the court case, describes the break down in relations between father and daughter.

In the run-up to the 2018 royal wedding Thomas Markle had been the subject of immense tabloid interest, which reached a pinnacle when the Daily Mail revealed just days before the wedding that, in an attempt to revamp his image, Thomas Markle had staged paparazzi photos of himself preparing for his daughter's big day.

Thomas Markle was then hospitalized and had to undergo surgery, which prevented him from traveling to his daughter's wedding.

MORE: Prince Harry and Meghan sue over drone photos of son Archie

Relations between the two became strained and Thomas Markle gave several interviews to the media, which we now know greatly upset his daughter. The letter lays out Meghan's take on these events.

According to the duchess' legal team, the Mail on Sunday breached copyright by publishing the private letter as it legally belongs to the duchess, the author of the letter.

Her lawyers also argue that the Mail on Sunday breached privacy and data protection laws and that they cherry-picked portions of the letter to manipulate readers.

The letter was published by the Mail on Sunday in February 2019. In it, the duchess describes her sadness at the deterioration of her relationship with her father, asks why he spoke to the media and said he has broken her heart "into a million pieces."

Thomas Markle claims he agreed to the letter being published to set the record straight after a friend of the duchess mentioned the letter in an interview with People magazine.

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Meghan, Duchess of Sussex speaks during a special school assembly at the Robert Clack Upper School in Dagenham on March 6, 2020 in London, England.

Five friends, described as "an essential part of Meghan's inner circle," spoke anonymously to People, according to the magazine, saying they wanted to "stand up against the global bullying we are seeing and speak the truth about our friend."

They added, "Meg has silently sat back and endured the lies and untruths ... It's wrong to put anyone under this level of emotional trauma, let alone when they're pregnant."

One of these five friends referenced the letter Meghan had written to her father, saying, "After the wedding she wrote him a letter. She's like, 'Dad, I'm so heartbroken. I love you. I have one father. Please stop victimizing me through the media so we can repair our relationship.'"

Thomas Markle in turn said he felt compelled to publish the letter to defend his reputation -- asserting it was not the conciliatory missive described by this friend in People.

The lawsuit must determine whether the Mail on Sunday infringed Duchess Meghan's rights when it published the letter.

Prince Harry announces lawsuit blasting 'disturbing pattern' by British tabloid media

Prince Harry announced the lawsuit in a statement criticizing the media during his tour of southern Africa in October 2019.

He wrote, "My wife has become one of the latest victims of a British tabloid press that wages campaigns against individuals with no thought to the consequences -- a ruthless campaign that has escalated over the past year, throughout her pregnancy and while raising our newborn son."

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In this file photo taken on March 5, 2020, Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, arrive to attend the Endeavour Fund Awards at Mansion House in London.

"This particular legal action hinges on one incident in a long and disturbing pattern of behavior by British tabloid media," he added. "The contents of a private letter were published unlawfully in an intentionally destructive manner to manipulate you, the reader, and further the divisive agenda of the media group in question. In addition to their unlawful publication of this private document, they purposely misled you by strategically omitting select paragraphs, specific sentences, and even singular words to mask the lies they had perpetuated for over a year."

I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces

"My deepest fear is history repeating itself. I've seen what happens when someone I love is commoditized to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person," wrote Harry, whose mother, Princess Diana, died in a paparazzi-involved car crash in 1997. "I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces."

After the statement was released to the public, his law firm, Schillings, laid out their case.

"We have initiated legal proceedings against the Mail on Sunday, and its parent company Associated Newspapers, over the intrusive and unlawful publication of a private letter written by the Duchess of Sussex, which is part of a campaign by this media group to publish false and deliberately derogatory stories about her, as well as her husband," the law firm wrote. "Given the refusal of Associated Newspapers to resolve this issue satisfactorily, we have issued proceedings to redress this breach of privacy, infringement of copyright and the aforementioned media agenda."

What has happened so far?

There have now been four pretrial hearings.

The first hearing, known as a strike-out hearing, was held in April to determine which of the duchess's claims could proceed to a trial against Associated Newspapers. In this hearing, lawyers for the Mail on Sunday successfully argued that certain parts of the duchess' claims should be removed.

Warby -- the judge who is presiding over the case -- agreed to take out complaints that the paper acted dishonestly, deliberately stirred up conflict between the duchess and her father, and pursued an agenda of publishing offensive or intrusive articles about the duchess.

"I do not consider the allegations in question go to the 'heart' of the case, which at its core concerns the publication of five articles disclosing the words of, and information drawn from, the letter written by the claimant to her father in August in 2018."

These five articles were published in the Mail on Sunday in February 2019 and reproduced parts of her handwritten letter she sent to her father.

Having lost on those claims, the duchess agreed to pay Associated Newspapers' legal fees of approximately $87,000.

Meghan wins right to protect identity of her friends

The second hearing was on July 29 and in it the duchess' legal team called for Warby to legally block Associated Newspapers from publishing the identity of the five friends who gave interviews to People magazine. Their names were revealed to the newspaper in a confidential court document attached to the first hearing and Meghan was worried the identity of her friends would be made public.

In a witness statement sent to the court before the hearing, the duchess argued, "Associated Newspapers, the owner of The Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, is threatening to publish the names of five women -- five private citizens -- who made a choice on their own to speak anonymously with a U.S. media outlet more than a year ago, to defend me from the bullying behavior of Britain's tabloid media.

These five women are not on trial, and nor am I. The publisher of the Mail on Sunday is the one on trial

"These five women are not on trial, and nor am I. The publisher of the Mail on Sunday is the one on trial. It is this publisher that acted unlawfully and is attempting to evade accountability; to create a circus and distract from the point of this case --that the Mail on Sunday unlawfully published my private letter."

Her lawyers argued that the friends have a double right to anonymity, firstly as confidential journalistic sources and secondly under their own privacy rights.

Lawyers for Associated Newspapers argued that the identities should be made public, calling them "important potential witnesses on a key issue."

"Reporting these matters without referring to names would be a heavy curtailment of the media's and the defendant's entitlement to report this case and the public's right to know about it," said Antony White, the lawyer representing the paper. "No friend's oral evidence could be fully and properly reported because full reporting might identify her, especially as there has already been media speculation as to their identities."

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Meghan, Duchess of Sussex attends the Commonwealth Day Service 2020 on March 09, 2020 in London, England.

Warby said in his ruling, "I have concluded that, for the time being at least, the court should grant the claimant the order that she seeks," protecting the anonymity of friends who defended Meghan in the pages of a U.S. magazine."

Warby also added though that concerns about confidentiality "may fade or even evaporate if and when there is a trial at which one or more of the sources gives evidence."

Meghan's legal team is treating the five women as potential witnesses, so they may be named at trial.

Associated Newspapers declined to comment on the judge's ruling.

Court battle over behind-the-scenes book

In the third hearing, held on Sept. 21, Associated Newspapers argued that they should be allowed to include "Finding Freedom" to support their argument that Meghan did not expect the contents of the letter to her father to remain private, even suggesting that she had mentioned it to the Kensington Palace communications team as part of a potential media strategy.

They also argued that Meghan was trying to manipulate the narrative around her to be more positive, and that she gave or enabled "them [the authors of Finding Freedom, Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand] to be given a great deal of other information about her personal life, in order to set out her own version of events in a way that is favourable to her."

Meghan's lawyers categorically refute these claims, maintaining that neither the duke nor the duchess collaborated with the authors of the book.

Judge Francesca Kaye ruled in the High Court on Sept. 29th that Associated Newspapers could amend their argument against the duchess and include as evidence "Finding Freedom," a book about her and Prince Harry's departure from official royal duties co-authored by Carolyn Durand and Omid Scobie.

Durand is a former producer at ABC News, and Scobie is currently an ABC News royal contributor.

Responding to the ruling, the duchess's legal team issued a strongly worded statement saying they have "no doubt" the newspaper's new defense "will fail."

"We were prepared for this potential outcome given the low threshold to amend a pleading for a privacy and copyright case," the legal team said in the statement, adding that the publishers are using the court case to "exploit The duchess's privacy and the privacy of those around her for profit-motivated clickbait rather than journalism."

"As a reminder, it is The Mail on Sunday and Associated Newspapers who acted unlawfully and are the ones on trial, not The Duchess of Sussex, although they would like their readers to believe otherwise," they concluded in the statement.

Associated Newspapers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meghan's bid to avoid going to trial

In the fourth hearing, held on Oct. 29th, Warby agreed to Meghan's lawyers' request to postpone the trial, which is now set to take place in late 2021.

Meghan's lawyers also laid out in the fourth hearing their application for a Summary Judgement, which Warby agreed to hear in full in January.

Meghan’s lawyers argued that Associated Newspapers’ defense is so weak the case should not even go to trial. This is a new tactic by her legal team and Warby will decide early next year if it has any merit.

What's next?

A trial date has now been moved to October or November of 2021.

There are several procedural steps that have to be fulfilled first, including the disclosure of documents and the exchange of witness statements, according to a source close to the duchess.