Buckingham Palace said last night that the Queen's solicitors would issue a writ against the newspaper. Earlier lawyers acting for the newspaper said that it would fight any legal proceedings that might follow a writ for breach of copyright.
The action could take up to 18 months to come to court and cost the newspaper substantial sums in legal costs and 'flagrant', or exemplary, damages. The Sun had been given until close of business yesterday to respond to a letter from the Queen's solicitor, Sir Matthew Farrer, demanding damages and costs for publishing her speech two days early.
Video and audio tapes of the 10-minute broadcast recorded at Sandringham by a small crew in the week before Christmas were sent to radio and television stations in Britain and the Commonwealth, though not to newspapers. All copies carried an embargo warning that the contents must remain secret until Christmas Day.
Daniel Taylor, company solicitor for News Group Newspapers, publisher of the Sun, wrote to the Queen's solicitors refusing to come to a settlement and yesterday said that he was surprised by the decision to seek 'substantial' damages and costs.
'The Sun wishes to make it clear it will be resisting any proceedings which may be issued in the High Court,' he said. 'The threat of legal proceedings appears to the Sun to lack a sense of due proportion.'
In a court case it would be up to the Queen to show that she owned the copyright of the speech, which would belong to her even if written by an employee.
The only defence that appears open to the newspaper is under what is known as 'fair dealing', where it could try to show that it was in the public interest to publish the details in advance.
Stephen Edwards, a partner at Richards Butler, said: 'Matters which are in the public interest and those which are merely interesting to the public tend to be clearly differentiated by the courts.'
He believed that if the copyright breach were proven the Palace's lawyers might press for 'flagrant damages' which would not seek to compensate the Queen, but would seek to make an example of the newspaper.