LONDON — In a setback to Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, in their bitter legal battle against the British tabloids, a high court judge struck down key claims on Friday in a lawsuit that Meghan brought against The Mail on Sunday for publishing a letter she sent to her father.
The judge, Mark Warby, ruled that the newspaper would not be judged on whether it had acted dishonestly; had stirred up conflict between Meghan, who is also known as the Duchess of Sussex, and her father, Thomas Markle; or had published offensive and intrusive articles about the duchess.
Instead, Justice Warby said, the court would decide only whether the publication of the letter had violated her privacy. The duchess’s law firm, Schillings, said she would press forward with the case but expressed disappointment that the judge did not consider the newspaper’s motives relevant.
“We are surprised to see that his ruling suggests that dishonest behavior is not relevant,” the firm said in a statement. “We feel honesty and integrity are at the core of what matters; or as it relates to The Mail on Sunday.”
Lawyers for the duchess said they would not appeal the decision but argued that the rest of their case remained strong.
“The duchess’ rights were violated,” the firm said. “The legal boundaries around privacy were crossed. As part of this process, the extremes to which The Mail on Sunday used distortive, manipulative and dishonest tactics to target the Duchess of Sussex have been put on full display.”
At the heart of the case is an anguished, five-page letter that the duchess wrote to Mr. Markle, a former Hollywood lighting designer, in August 2018, four months after he was a no-show at her wedding to Prince Harry. In it, she accused her father of breaking her heart into a “million pieces” by speaking to the tabloids about their estrangement while refusing to take her phone calls.
The Mail on Sunday obtained the letter, presumably from Mr. Markle, and published it in February 2019. The paper’s owner, Associated Newspapers, contended that Mr. Markle had been under no legal obligation to keep the letter private and that the duchess, as a public figure, should not have expected it to remain confidential.
Prince Harry, who has his own lawsuit pending against the tabloids for allegedly hacking his cellphone voice mail, has lashed out against the tabloids’ treatment of his wife. He likened it to the relentless coverage of his mother, Princess Diana, which ended in her death in 1997 after a high-speed car chase by photographers.
Last month, the couple, who have relocated to Los Angeles, notified The Mail and three other tabloids — The Sun, The Daily Mirror and The Daily Express — that they would no longer engage with them. In a letter, a spokesman for the couple accused the papers of “distorted, false or invasive” coverage.
In his 33-page decision, Justice Warby said The Mail’s claim that the letter had not been private or confidential “might seem at first a little surprising.” He said the case had similarities to a lawsuit that Harry’s father, Prince Charles, brought against The Mail’s publisher after it published details of a diary he kept during a visit to Hong Kong to witness the city’s handover to China in 1997. Charles won that case.
Still, the judge expressed sympathy for the newspaper’s argument that Meghan’s claims about its behavior were either not adequately argued or irrelevant to her claim of privacy infringement.
“I do not consider that the allegations struck out on that basis go to the ‘heart’ of the case, which at its core concerns the publication” of the letter, he concluded.