Spencer rebuffed over privacy law

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The European Commission of Human Rights yesterday barred Earl Spencer from pursuing a privacy case involving his former wife. Lord Spencer had claimed UK law does not protect him from press intrusion. Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, considers the implications.

The decision by Lord Spencer to go to the Human Rights Commission in Strasbourg was taken two years ago but yesterday's hearing seemed to come with impeccable timing.

It followed a move by the Government to incorporate the Convention on Human Rights into UK law, the death of Lord Spencer's sister Diana, Princess of Wales, and the recent lurid coverage of the Earl's divorce case. His case was that despite a Press Complaints Commission condemnation of intrusive reporting three years ago of him and his then wife, Victoria Lockwood, British law gives him no effective remedy against the offending newspaper.

Although the PCC can, and did, condemn a newspaper for intrusion - in this case the News of the World - it cannot force compensation, nor can it prevent publication of an offending article.

But yesterday's quick rejection by the European Commission of the Earl and Ms Lockwood's application - which came as a surprise to some lawyers - means that any emerging law of privacy Britain will depend on domestic judges. After a few hours' deliberation, the commission ruled that the case should not go before the European Court of Human Rights.

In theory, had the case gone to the European Court, a judgment against the Government would have forced ministers to bring in a statutory law of privacy giving victims the right to damages and in some circumstances the right to stop damaging stories from being published. Ministers, however, who said they were "satisfied" with yesterday's decision, have said they have no such plans.

The future of a privacy law now hangs on the decision of the Government to incorporate the human rights convention into British law.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, has accepted that this is likely to lead to a judge-made law of privacy though both media and lawyers alike are concerned that this could lead to a haphazard development of the law.

Dan Tench, a media lawyer for the London firm Lovell White Durrant, said the ruling did not mean there would be no judge-made privacy law, simply that it would not come from Strasbourg. "It seems the view of the commission is that it is for individual nations to balance the competing interests of freedom of the press and privacy."