In a consultation paper produced jointly by the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Scottish Office, ministers say that courts cannot be left to develop privacy laws in a piecemeal fashion.
Their proposals echo calls from Sir David Calcutt QC in his report on the press earlier this year and follow criticism of the way newspapers handled David Mellor's affair with Antonia de Sancha and the break-up of the Royal marriage.
Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor said: 'The time has come to ensure the law protects the privacy of everyone. This is matter, which has been the subject of cross-party study for many years and I think it is right to offer concrete proposals for reform.' A second White Paper on press regulation is expected shortly, dealing with issues such as Sir David's recommendation that there should be new criminal legislation to outlaw bugging.
Today's document says that any new privacy laws would not be confined to curbing newspapers but would also restrain noisy neighbours, private firms and nosy officials. Victims could sue in cases where they had suffered 'substantial distress' so long as they could show that they were not unduly sensitive and that the respondent did not have a legitimate defence.
Information relating to health, personal communications and personal relationships would be covered by the legislation, which would also enshrine a 'right to be free from harassment and molestation'.
Normally, damages should be limited to a maximum of pounds 10,000, the report concludes.
Much of the document is concerned with the press, however. It says that 'spying, prying, watching and besetting' should be considered an infringement of privacy, preventing journalists from photographing people with long lenses or from camping outside their house.
There should be a number of defences available to editors - or other respondents - in privacy cases. The most important of these, and the one likely to be most fiercely debated, is that of public interest.
The report says that newspapers should be able to publish private information if they believe that this will:
contribute to the prevention, detection or exposure of any crime or other seriously anti-social conduct;
protect public health or safety;
prevent the public from being 'materially misled'.
Critics will argue this definition of 'public interest' is too narrow, especially if it is not accompanied by new laws protecting freedom of expression. Article 19, which campaigns against censorship, said: 'Without such guarantees, the right to privacy would be open to abuse.'
However, others will say that the Government's proposals do not go far enough in protecting people against the press. They are certain to argue that the decision, announced in today's report, to deny legal aid to plaintiffs in privacy cases will prevent all but the most wealthy from making use of the new law.
The consultation paper says lawyers should be allowed to give their services free on the understanding that they can charge a larger fee than normal if their client wins. It rejects the creation of a statutory Press Ombudsman but says newspapers should establish the post on a voluntary basis.
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