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Royal butler succeeds in action against misuse of private information.

Written by Mark Reed on 04 February 2017

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Burrell v Clifford

[2017] E.M.L.R. 2

Facts

The claimant was a butler for the royal family and worked under them for over 21 years. In 2002, various meetings took place between the claimant and the defendant, a prominent and successful public relations consultant. Throughout these meetings, the claimant sent a letter to the defendant with information of his relationship with the royals, and specifically the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

This letter was then faxed through to a newspaper, and although it wasn’t published, the claimant sought action for breach of confidence and the misuse of private information. The claim was not filed until 2014 though, of which the defence have argued is beyond the six-year limitation period to be able to claim. Interestingly, the main defence was that the claimant had given permission or authority for the letter to be passed on.

The first issue for the claimant to address was the limitation period. It was noted that the claimant hadn’t been aware of the situation until 2011, when he was sent the letter from the police in the middle of the phone hacking investigation which then led him to file his claim. This meant that the claimant could rely on s.32 Limitation Act 1980 which states that you can postpone the limitation period start date until the date of which you are aware of the issue; which in this case was June 2011.

Held

It was necessary to consider whether the claimant did in fact authorise the letter to be passed on. The judge found that if the claimant had known at the time, as suggested by the defendant, it was highly improbable that the claimant would have waited until 2011 to have complained. With this in mind, the judge found the defendants case as implausible and entirely unconvincing, and the claimant’s case consistent with undisputed facts.

Measure of Damages

This led to the issue of assessing damages in claims for misuse of private information; and applying the principles in Gulati v MGN Ltd [2015] EWHC 1482 which include: - what the nature of the private information was, the nature and purpose of the misuse, the consequences of the misuse, whether the misuse caused the claimant financial loss or provided financial gain to the defendant, and extent of mitigating factors such as genuine mistake or belief in the claimant’s consent.

The judge noted that although the claimant had not authorised the letter being sent, the content was subsequently used years later by the claimant in an autobiography. However, this was his decision to publish the detail at a time when he saw fit, and was considered as an ‘aspect of his autonomy concerning his private information’. It was the claimants right to take action, and the destress caused entitled him to compensation. When taking everything into account, the judge awarded an overall payment of £5,000.

This case has been highlighted in the media for some time, so it is hopeful that the decision will bring closure to the claimant, and provide future litigants important information on limitation periods and the correct measure for damages that a judge will use.
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