If, as seems likely, it proves true that the News of the World did indeed hack into the voicemail messages of the abducted teenager Milly Dowler, the phone hacking saga moves onto an entirely new plane. This blog has previously argued that the fuss about phone-hacking has been overblown – it is plainly wrong to intercept people’s voicemails, but in many of the celebrity cases featured so far, no great or lasting harm appears to have been done and if damages are appropriate in the cases in which legal claims have been brought, they ought to be confined to reasonable levels.
Where the consequences of phone hacking affect the progress of a criminal investigation into the disappearance of a young girl and may have given her parents false hope that she might be found alive, it is difficult to maintain normal levels of academic detachment when considering what legal remedies might be appropriate. Were there to be a civil action arising out of such activity – or similar activity towards the parents of the Soham schoolgirls – there is no current precedent that would seem to cater for the approach the court might take. News International itself has conceded that if the accusations are true, the activity is ‘unforgivable’, ‘appalling’ and ‘disgraceful’. Nobody could disagree with that.