Papers could face privacy suits

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NEWSPAPERS could be sued for breach of privacy under a new civil wrong on which the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, is to publish a consultation paper this month.

The initiative coincides with ministers' plans for measures - which could be included in the Criminal Justice Act in the next Parliamentary session - to outlaw electronic eavesdropping.

Despite earlier doubts among some of his colleagues - including Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary - John Major is said to be keen to press ahead with civil law changes aimed at preventing breaches of privacy by the press.

The green paper is expected to discuss the possibility of a court or tribunal, similar to the small claims court, which would allow ordinary people, as well as the rich and famous, to take legal action. The dilemma, as ministers see it, is how to provide recourse to the law for all without putting further demands on the legal aid budget. A system modelled on the small claims court would almost certainly have an upper limit of no more than pounds 3,000 for damages.

The tort on privacy was strongly advocated within the Cabinet by Kenneth Clarke when he was Home Secretary. The idea was discussed by ministers after complaints about intrusion into the lives of the Royal Family and concern at coverage of David Mellor's affair with Antonia de Sancha. But any new law which could be used only by the rich - a criticism often made of the libel laws - would provoke an outcry.

Ministers also expect to publish their detailed response to the Calcutt report on the press, which proposed statutory curbs, before the end of the month.