Judge warns Rupert Murdoch: Your trials aren't over
Last-minute £500,000 deal with Charlotte Church puts an end to one high-profile hacking court case – but others are imminent
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Friday 24 February 2012
News International closed off the first wave of phone-hacking claims last night by reaching a settlement with Charlotte Church – but was immediately told by a High Court judge that a trial date for the second wave of claimants will be set next week.
NI's settlement with the Welsh singer halted the high-profile trial scheduled for Monday, but before its legal team had time to celebrate, Mr Justice Vos announced a new trial date for more alleged victims, including Cherie Blair QC, the wife of the former Prime Minister.
"Vos II" will mirror the legal process that ended with 55 claims, which included a star line-up of actors, politicians and celebrities, all settling out of court. The judge said he was "conscious of the impending trial date that has caused many cases to settle".
For Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and its battered reputation, the pain and the growing legal bill continues. The judge offered no respite when he said: "I'm extremely keen that the momentum of this litigation should not be lost by the fact that the cases that were set for trial are settled."
Reworking the 1966 World Cup final commentary, one lawyer at the centre of the cases remarked: "They think it's all over – but it isn't."
It can also be revealed that fears for her mother's health forced Ms Church to settle her hacking claim against NI out of court, in the face of hardball tactics by Mr Murdoch's lawyers which would have made Maria Church a focus of a trial.
On Monday in the High Court, NI's senior counsel Michael Silverleaf will quickly accept liability for a litany of wrongdoing on behalf of the News of the World that came close to destroying the Church family. The settlement, including costs, is likely to be in the region of £500,000.
But the legal language will barely tell the story. An independent psychiatric evaluation of Mrs Church had recently been carried out, as a pre-trial review had ordered. The legal aim was to determine how much damage the NOTW's intrusive practices had actually caused.
A respected consultant from the Priory clinic examined Mrs Church. The process was said to be traumatic for a woman whose fragile state was discussed by her daughter during her testimony to the Leveson Inquiry.
Ms Church told the inquiry that her mother attempted suicide after finding out the NOTW was about to run a story about her husband's alleged affair and drug taking. NI, however, questioned the independence of the evaluation, claiming it was not legally robust, and with days left before the trial date it wanted her examined again by another psychiatrist which it would appoint. Charlotte Church feared the effect on her mother of having the process repeated – explaining her willingness to settle. At the beginning of this week a figure was agreed between the two sides, reflecting the damage to Charlotte, her mother, and the family's business. But the words that are to be read out in front of Mr Justice Vos on Monday were still a source of conflict.
Ms Church wanted clarity on what the NOTW did to her and her family. She wanted the apology read out in court to leave nobody in doubt what NI were agreeing to. Finally on Wednesday a deal was done.
NI's legal bill in the Church case alone is currently estimated to be close to £1.5m. A drawn-out lengthy legal journey to the appeal would take that past £2m. Throw in Ms Church's own legal bill, and bankruptcy could threaten if she lost in the appeal court.
Charlotte and Rupert: A love-hate relationship
* As a 13-year-old, Charlotte Church agreed to sing – for no fee – at the 1999 wedding of Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng. Her management believed they had won News International's goodwill. They were wrong. NI disputes the claim.
* The Sun ran reports of a website's "countdown clock" in the run-up to the singer's 16th birthday. The message: sex with Ms Church was about to become legal.
* The Sun ran a story about her first pregnancy. Her parents had yet to be told.
* A NOTW headline screamed "Church three-in-a-bed cocaine shock". Except it was about the singer's stepfather. Her mother was described as attempting to take her own life as a result.
* Her action against the NOTW centred on 33 articles. NI's lawyers claimed that not all the articles involved damage to her or her family. She claimed the NOTW knew of her mother's fragile state.
How NOTW 'erased unhelpful emails'
New evidence has emerged which appears to support claims that senior staff at the News of the World attempted to suppress and destroy evidence of hacking at the newspaper.
Documents released by a High Court judge show the company had a policy "to eliminate in a consistent manner" emails that "could be unhelpful in the context of future litigation in which a News International company is a defendant", the Daily Telegraph reported.
The documents, which were created by lawyers working for hacking victims and based on information provided by News International's own internal investigation into phone hacking, also state that hundreds of thousands of emails were deleted "on nine separate occasions", according to the newspaper.
They also contain claims that one unnamed reporter carried on intercepting phone messages after the 2006 arrest of Glenn Mulcaire.
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