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U.K. judge holds hearing in Duchess of Sussex’s lawsuit against newspaper

Lawyers for the Duchess of Sussex asked a judge at a London court on Wednesday to keep the names of five of her friends out of the public domain as she wages a privacy-infringement battle against a British newspaper.

Meghan’s attorney said the female friends, who defended her in anonymous magazine interviews last year, are innocent parties who fear intrusion if their names come out. The target of her lawsuit, Associated Newspapers Ltd., argues that the principle of open justice — the public’s right to know — means the friends should be identified.

The former Meghan Markle is suing the publisher of the Mail on Sunday newspaper and the MailOnline website at Britain’s High Court over five articles that published portions of a handwritten letter she wrote to her estranged father, Thomas Markle, after her marriage to Prince Harry in 2018.

Allegations of misuse of private information and data breaches

Meghan, 38, is seeking damages from the publisher for alleged misuse of private information, copyright infringement and data protection breaches. Her lawyers say publishing the letter was “a flagrant and unjustified intrusion into her private and family life.” Associated Newspapers says it will strongly contest the claim.

At a half-day pretrial hearing, Meghan’s lawyers asked Judge Mark Warby to prohibit publishing the personal details of the friends who spoke to People magazine in early 2019 to condemn alleged bullying of the duchess by the U.K. press.

The women’s names are included in a confidential court document, but they have been identified in public only as A to E.

Meghan’s attorney, Justin Rushbrooke, argued that the court had a duty to “protect the identity of confidential journalistic sources.”

He said that with the full high-profile libel trial yet to begin, the court should be cautious and protect “the innocent party who fears intrusion.”

But the Mail’s lawyer, Antony White, said granting anonymity would undermine the “vitally important open justice principle.”

“The friends are important potential witnesses on a key issue,” White said in a written argument. He said removing their names “would be a heavy curtailment of the media’s and the defendant’s entitlement to report this case and the public’s right to know about it.”

Newspaper counters Meghan’s friends made letter public 

Associated Newspapers says it was Meghan’s friends who brought the letter to Thomas Markle into the public domain by describing it in the People article. It argues that details of the letter in that article must have come “directly or indirectly” from the duchess.

But Rushbrooke said Meghan did not know at the time that her friends were speaking to the magazine. He said the anonymous interviews were arranged by one of the five friends, who was concerned about the toll media criticism was taking on the duchess, pregnant at the time with her first child.

In a witness statement submitted in the case, the duchess said “each of these women is a private citizen, young mother, and each has a basic right to privacy.”

“These five women are not on trial, and nor am I,” she wrote. “The publisher of the Mail on Sunday is the one on trial. It is this publisher that acted unlawfully and is attempting to evade accountability; to create a circus and distract from the point of this case — that the Mail on Sunday unlawfully published my private letter.”

The American actress, former star of the TV legal drama Suits, married Queen Elizabeth II’s grandson Harry in a lavish ceremony at Windsor Castle in May 2018. Their son Archie was born the following year,

In January the couple announced they were quitting royal duties and moving to North America, citing what they said was unbearable intrusion from the British media.

Neither Harry nor Meghan was in court for Wednesday’s hearing. The judge said he would give his ruling “as soon as I can.”

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