Celebrities’ home addresses and privacy: Heather Mills v The Sun

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights enshrines the right of an individual to respect for his or her private life. This right was already recognised in the Press Complaints Commission code which provides: “Everyone is entitled to the respect of his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence. A publication will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent.” Whether this should prevent publication of details of a celebrity’s house has been raised a number of times in complaints to the PCC, and it is now coming before the courts.

Heather Mills is the very successful model who has been publicly associated with Sir Paul McCartney. She brought an action against The Sun to prevent publication of material which might identify the address of her new home. Ms Mills had received a number of “disturbing” emails, and the assassination of John Lennon and the recent attack on George Harrison caused her to be anxious that the address of her new home should not be made public.

Although the editor of The Sun had indicated to Ms Mills’ lawyers that The Sun would not print material in breach of the PCC’s code unless another newspaper did so, he had not given a legally binding undertaking. However, Ms Mills claimed that the address of her new home was confidential and that her right to respect for her private life under Article 8 outweighed The Sun’s right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the ECHR. On that basis she sought an injunction preventing publication of the material at any time.

The court rejected Ms Mills’ application because she was already well known to be resident in a certain seaside town, and pictures of her present home had been published in the national press without complaint by her. Perhaps more importantly, The Sun had consistently stated that it would not breach the Code and publish the material unless it became public through another source. On these bases, the court refused the injunction.

However, if The Sun had not already stated that it would not breach the Code unless the information already became public, and because of the consequent danger of harassment (or worse) that Ms Mills might have faced if they had published details of her home address, the likelihood is that Ms Mills would have been successful in obtaining an injunction. The media should be aware of the dangers of identifying the homes (or other aspects of the private lives) of celebrities since the law is rapidly increasing the protection that it will give to individuals in these circumstances. This is especially so where celebrities face the danger of being stalked by fans.

Bulletins are for general guidance only. Legal advice should be sought before taking action in relation to specific matters. Where reference is made to Court decisions facts referred to are those reported as found by the Court. Please note that past bulletins included in the Archive have not been updated by any subsequent changes in statute or case law.