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What the Mosley privacy decision really means

Where does this leave effective protection for privacy?

This morning the European Court of Human Rights rejected Max Mosley's contention that the United Kingdom should ensure that those who are about to have their privacy intruded upon by the media be notified in advance. (There is an excellent legal analysis of the decision already at the INFORRM website by Hugh Tomlinson QC.)

There are three main points of significance to this decision.

First, the substantive English law in respect of the misuse of private information remains unchanged. Mosley would still be able to bring his case and the News of the World would still have to pay substantial damages and costs. There is nothing in this decision that actually changes the law as it stands.

The unhappy consequence of the decision is that in situations like the case of Mosley, where there was no public interest in the intrusion, the victim's only remedy will still be to bring an action for damages after their privacy has been irretrievably lost.

This means that only individuals as wealthy and resilient as Mosley have a remedy for the breach of their legal rights. The cheaper, speedier and effective remedy of an injunction, which would allow the enforcement of privacy rights by those not rich and famous, has been held by the Strasbourg Court to be not a requirement.

So, contrary to the misleading spin of the mainstream media about how "prior notification" would favour the rich and famous, continuing with the status quo means that expensive and lengthy damages actions for privacy can only really be threatened or taken by someone of the attributes of a Max Mosley.

Second, this decision may not be the final word in this case. It is open to Mosley to appeal to the Grand Chamber. Indeed, had Mosley won this round, then the UK government may have made such an appeal. If so, this is a matter that will not go away and, just as no one could predict how the Court would rule today, no one can predict confidently what the Grand Chamber may decide, and then there would then be no higher appeal for any party.

Third, it leaves open the difficult question of what protection should there be in the meantime for individuals who face having their right to privacy irrecoverably lost for no good reason.

Such intrusions, without a public-interest justification, will continue to be an infringement of an individual's legitimate right to a private life. The "Hackgate" scandal has shown that tabloids are indifferent to the legal and voluntary restrictions to their intrusions. The commercial desire to publish the private details of individuals when there is no public interest is not a serious "free-expression issue". Obliging the press to have a public-interest justification before publishing such information cannot seriously be called censorship: it is simply decency and fair play. In 99 per cent of cases, the press contacts the subjects of stories in advance, and that is not "censorship" either.

However, given the welcome and impressive development of privacy law since the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998, today's adverse decision is only mild setback for those seeking a more civilized and respectful society.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a practising media lawyer.