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Privacy in English law is a rapidly developing[1] area of English law concerning the right of an individual to protect personal (or private) information from misuse or unauthorised disclosure.[1] English law has no general privacy tort, but this area of law has been transformed by the Human Rights Act, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into English law. Article 8 of the Convention guarantees the right to privacy. The Convention also requires the judiciary to "have regard" to the Convention in developing the common law.[2]



The earliest definition of privacy in English law was given by Judge Cooley who defined privacy as "the right to be left alone".[3] In 1972 the Younger Committee, an inquiry into privacy stated that the term could not be defined satisfactorily. Again in 1990 the Calcutt Committee concluded that: "nowhere have we found a wholly satisfactory statutory definiton of privacy".[3]

Common law

There is currently no freedstanding right to privacy at common law.[4] This point was reaffirmed when the House of Lords ruled in Home Office v Wainwright (a case involving a strip search undertaken on the plaintiff Mary Wainwright while visiting Armley prison).[5] It has also been stated that the European Convention on Human Rights does not require the development of an independent tort of privacy.[6] In the absence of a common law right to privacy in English law torts such as the equitable doctrine breach of confidence,[7] torts linked to the intentional inflcition of harm to the person[8] and public law torts relating to the use of police powers[9] have been used to fill a lacuna in the law. The judiciary has developed the law in an incredmental fashion and have resisted the opportunity to create a new tort.[10]

Expansion of privacy laws

British radio DJ Sara Cox's case against The People Newspaper was one of the first celebrity privacy cases. The media referred to the case as a "watershed". The disc jockey sued after the newspaper printed nude photographs of the of her taken while on her honeymoon. However the case was settled out of court and so did not establish a precedent.[11] The decision was seen as discrediting the Press Complaints Commission[12]

The expansion of the doctrine of breach of confidence under the Human Rights Act began with the Douglas v Hello! decision. Section 6 of the Human Rights Act requires English courts to give effect to the rights in the Convention when developing the common law. There is no need to show a pre-existing relationship of confidence where private information is involved and the courts have recognised that the publication of private material represents a detriment in itself.[6] The Human Rights act has horizontal effect in disputes between private individuals meaning that the Human Rights Act is just as applicable as if one party had been a public body.[13] Breach of confidence now extends to private information (regardless of whether it is confidencial) so as to give effect to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Before this breach of confidence afforded "umbrella protection" to both personal and non-personal information.[1]

ECHR challenge

Following Max Mosley's successful action against the News of the World Newspaper for publishing details of his private life, he announced that he would challenge English law's implementation of the Article 8 right to privacy guaranteed when the Human Rights Act implemented the European Convention on Human Rights into English law.[14] In this ruling the European Court of Human Rights will be asked to rule on the issue of "prior notification". This would require journalists to approach the subject of any investigation and inform them of the details of any allegations made about them, therefore allowing an injunction to be claimed.[14]


The increasing protections afforded to the private lives of individuals has sparked debate as to whether English law gives enough weight to freedom of the press and whether intervention by Parliament would be beneficial. The editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye Ian Hislop has argued against the development of English privacy law. He told BBC Panorama: "You don't have to prove it [an allegation] isn't true, you just have to prove that it's private by your definition. And in some of the cases the definition of privacy is pretty weak."[15] However, Liberal Democrat politician Mark Oaten has stated that the press were right to expose details of his private life:

"I concluded that however awful it may be, it's better to have a press which can expose MPs' private lives because it means we have a free press… it means we can expose corruption."[15] Max Mosley has argued for the further advancement of the law[16] whereas the editor of the Daily Mail newspaper Paul Dacre has accuseed Mr Justice Eady, the judge in the Mosley case, of bringing in a privacy law by the back door.[17]

Key cases


European rulings

See also

Further reading

  • A. Morgan, “Privacy, Confidence and Horizontal Effect: “Hello” Trouble” (2003) 62 (2) Cambridge Law Journal 444
  • H. Fenwick and G. Phillipson, “Confidence and Privacy: A Re-Examination” [1996] Cambridge Law Journal 447.
  • H. Fewick and G. Phillipson, “Breach of Confidence as a Privacy Remedy in the Human Rights Act Era” (2000) 63 Modern Law Review 660.
  • R. Singh and J. Strachan, “Privacy Postponed” [2003] European Human Rights Law Review Special Issue: Privacy 12-25.


  1. ^ a b c
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ a b "Princess Diana, Privacy Laws And Press Freedom In The United Kingdom". 1997-10-30. Retrieved 2009-07-03.  
  4. ^ Home Office v Wainwright [2001] EWCA Civ. 2081, Gordon Kaye v. Andrew Robertson and Sport Newspapers Ltd
  5. ^ "Law lords rule there is no right to privacy | UK news". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-07-03.  
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^ A v. B plc [2003] Q.B. 195.
  8. ^ Home Office v Wainwright [2001] EWCA Civ. 2081.
  9. ^ Ellis v Chief Constable Essex Police [2003] EWHC 1321.
  10. ^ [2001] EWCA Civ. 2081, at para. 42.
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ See Lord Nicholls [17] - [18] and Lord Hoffman [50] in Campbell v MGN [2004]
  14. ^ a b "Programmes | Law in Action | Mosley v UK". BBC News. 2009-02-24. Retrieved 2009-07-03.  
  15. ^ a b "UK | Is it farewell for Kiss and Tell?". BBC News. 2009-06-15. Retrieved 2009-07-03.  
  16. ^ "BBC - Panorama - Max Mosley on his right to privacy". BBC News. 2009-06-12. Retrieved 2009-07-03.  
  17. ^ "UK | Mail editor accuses Mosley judge". BBC News. 2008-11-10. Retrieved 2009-07-03.  

External links


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