Clifford fails to strike out Royal butler’s claim

The High Court refused to strike out a breach of confidence and privacy claim against Max Clifford by former royal butler Paul Burrell.

In 2002, Burrell sought to engage Clifford to manage and control publicity.  Burrell wrote a letter to Clifford detailing his relationship with the Royal Family. The letter was then faxed by Clifford to the News of the World.  Clifford argued the letter was a “pitch document” for the sale of Burrell’s story to the newspaper and Clifford was entitled to disclose it for that purpose. Burrell argued the letter was confidential and sent without his knowledge or approval.

Clifford subsequently applied to strike out Burrell’s action, claiming it was:

(a)   statute barred under the Limitation Act 1980 due to the claim being issued in May 2014 (i.e. more than 6 years from faxing the letter); and

(b)   an abuse of process under the principles in Jameel v Dow Jones & Co particularly due to the low level of damages against the estimated costs to trial.

The limitation point was rejected.  It was arguable Burrell’s right of action was deliberately concealed from him until June 2011 when he was given access to a police phone hacking file.

The abuse of process point was also rejected. The judge agreed the costs likely to be incurred in the case were “very alarming” (£232,000 budgeted) and level of damages low (at no more than £25,000) due to the limited disclosure of the letter.  However, if the wrong was established then it was a serious wrong, because information which was clearly transmitted for one purpose was used for another.  There was an arguable claim with a real prospect of more than nugatory damages.

The judge felt proper costs budgeting and proper case management might help to reduce the disproportionality of the costs.  It would be strategic for the defendant to use the judge’s suggestion that costs of £232,000 was “not at all sensible” and limit his exposure by a well-judged Part 36 offer.

It is understood the trial is currently set for 18th January 2016.