The European Court of Human Rights has upheld an appeal brought against France in respect of the French courts decisions in favour of Prince Albert of Monaco, against Paris-Match.
In May 2005, Paris-Match published an article claiming that Prince Albert had an illegitimate son. The Prince’s French privacy claims succeeded because the Constitution of Monaco does not allow an illegitimate child to become monarch. As a consequence, the French courts determined there was no debate of general interest and Paris-Match was ordered to pay €50,000 and publish a full front-page feature, including details of the judgment. The conditions in respect of the feature were lessened on appeal, but the overall judgment was upheld.
The key challenge for the ECHR was to determine whether the article contributed to a debate of general interest. Whilst three judges believed the main purpose of the article was to appeal to public curiosity about Prince Albert’s private life, four judges ruled that there was a debate of general interest and therefore the French court judgments constituted an infringement of Paris-Match’s Article 10 rights to freedom of expression. Whilst the Prince was entitled to privacy, because of his political position, the ECHR’s view was that such individuals need to display a greater degree of tolerance.
This ruling is significant because in this instance the ECHR has substituted its view in place of a domestic court more willingly than it has done so in previous privacy cases. In setting out that the future of the Monegasque monarchy was a matter of political importance – irrespective of whether or not the child could succeed his father to the throne pending any changes to succession laws and Constitution – the ECHR ruled that there was legitimate public interest in knowing of the child’s existence and being able to debate the implications.
Were the English courts to consider a similar case, they would almost certainly adopt the same position as the ECHR (and German courts who ruled against the Prince in favour of German publications containing the same information). In its ruling, the ECHR noted that a royal baby was of particular interest in countries with hereditary monarchies. That could not be truer here and English courts would most likely be sympathetic to the argument that such articles help to stimulate debate on succession laws and the monarchy. The birth of Prince George and changes in succession laws implemented prior to his birth attest to both of these points.
Whilst the case should not materially alter the English courts’ view of what constitutes debates of general interest, the ECHR judgment suggests that the remedy contained in section 12 of the Defamation Act 2013 – an order requiring publication of a summary of the judgment – will not breach Article 10 rights of defendants. We await the reaction to a Court granting this remedy with anticipation.