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Friday, February 17, 2012

Tory minister's son, 17, wins extension to High Court injunction blocking 'sensitive personal' story

Tory minister's son, 17, wins extension to High Court injunction blocking 'sensitive personal' story

Jonny Spelman

Cabinet minister Caroline Spelman used a gagging order to thwart a newspaper’s ‘political attack’ on her, the High Court heard yesterday.

Caroline Spelman

The millionaire Environment Secretary rushed to the courts after concluding a story regarding her teenage son was about to be published which she saw as politically motivated.

An interim injunction was issued last Saturday evening to hush up the ‘private information’ concerning 17-year-old Jonny Spelman, who is a promising rugby player.

Yesterday, a lawyer acting for Jonny invited the High Court to continue the privacy injunction against the Daily Star Sunday newspaper.

Jacob Dean said: ‘The real purpose of the newspaper’s attempt to publish this information was a political attack on Mrs Spelman, using her teenage son’s private information as a weapon.’

He told Mr Justice Tugendhat his client had a reasonable expectation of privacy and that public interest considerations did not outweigh this.

The Daily Star Sunday newspaper claimed its story was in the public interest and has asked for the injunction to be lifted.

Most of yesterday’s hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice was in private, and the judge is expected to hand down his ruling in a few days.

Senior Conservatives are deeply uneasy about Mrs Spelman’s decision to turn to the courts.

In doing so, she follows in the footsteps of footballers John Terry and Ryan Giggs, and TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson, in using the Human Rights Act to suppress a secret.

There is great public disquiet about the rich and famous using the courts to hush up revelations about their private lives.

The nature of the story about Jonny cannot be disclosed, but the court heard it contains ‘sensitive personal information’. There is no suggestion he has broken the law.

The teenager attends £30,000-a-year Tonbridge School in Kent and has played rugby for England under-16s as a member of Harlequins Academy.

Christina Michalos, counsel for Express Newspapers, told yesterday’s hearing: ‘This case is about freedom of expression in its purest sense - about the watchdog function of the press, and the court must not muzzle that watchdog.’

She rejected the suggestion that the real motivation of the story was political and focused on Jonny’s mother.

‘This is disputed strongly. We say there is an underlying public interest in the story itself,’ she said.

The minister and her husband Mark Spelman, a senior executive at the management consultancy firm Accenture, are named on the court papers as ‘legal friends’ of Jonny, who is a minor and cannot bring the action alone.

When the interim injunction was granted on Saturday, after a three-hour private hearing before Mr Justice Lindblom, the Spelmans applied to remain anonymous in the proceedings.

But the judge rejected this in accordance with the principle of open justice.

On that occasion, the judge said the information about Jonny, which was leaked to the newspaper, attracted a reasonable expectation of privacy and publication would not advance the public interest to a material degree, and was likely to have ‘a very significant harmful effect’ on the minister’s son.

Mr Justice Lindblom, who made his reasons public on Wednesday, said it was a case of a minor facing the prospect of considerable press scrutiny in a tabloid newspaper.

Mrs Spelman, 53, has been Tory MP for Meriden since 1997. In 2009, she was forced to repay nearly £10,000 of Commons allowances ‘inadvertently’ misused to pay her children’s nanny.

She and her husband, who have two other children, have homes in the West Midlands, London and Portugal.

UPDATE: Judge lifts injunction.

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