The identity of five close friends of Meghan Markle who disclosed information about a private letter written to her father cannot be revealed, a judge has ruled.
Meghan, 39, is suing the Mail On Sunday and MailOnline over five articles that reproduced part of a letter she wrote to her father Thomas Markle a few months after she married Prince Harry.
As part of the case, she confidentially named five friends who spoke about the letter to People magazine, she says without her knowledge, but claims Associated Newspapers Ltd (ANL), the publisher of Mail On Sunday and MailOnline, wanted to name them publicly.
Her team launched an urgent bid to keep the friends’ names private throughout court proceedings, saying they have a right to stay anonymous based on being confidential journalistic sources and private citizens.
On Wednesday, the judge, Mr Justice Warby, ruled the names should stay private “for the time being at least”, hinting that the decision could be reversed at a later date.
After the ruling, a source close to the Duchess of Sussex’s team said: “The duchess felt it was necessary to take this step to try and protect her friends – as any of us would – and we’re glad this was clear.
“We are happy that the judge has agreed to protect these five individuals.”
ANL has resisted the application. Part of its case hinges on the fact that Meghan’s friends mentioned the letter to her father when they spoke to People magazine, which led to Thomas Markle, now 76, releasing it to the Mail On Sunday.
In the ruling, Mr Justice Warby said the case ought to proceed at a greater pace, having been “afoot” for 10 months but moving slowly.
He added: “At this stage, continued anonymity not only upholds the agreement made between People magazine and the five friends, and the reasonable expectations which that generated; it also supports the proper administration of justice by shielding the friends from the “glare of publicity” in the pre-trial stage.
“Generally, it does not help the interests of justice if those involved in litigation are subjected to, or surrounded by, a frenzy of publicity.”
However he said naming them might be a price to be paid at trial “in the interests of transparency”.
The judge also criticised both sides for a “tit-for-tat” approach to the proceedings.
He added: “Both sides have demonstrated an eagerness to play out the merits of their dispute in public, outside the courtroom, and primarily in media reports.”
Last week Justin Rushbrooke QC, representing the duchess, said in written submissions to the court: “To force the claimant, as the defendant urges this court to do, to disclose their identities to the public at this stage would be to exact an unacceptably high price for pursuing her claim for invasion of privacy against the defendant in respect of its disclosure of the letter.
“On her case, which will be tried in due course, the defendant has been guilty of a flagrant and unjustified intrusion into her private and family life.
“Given the close factual nexus between the letter and the events leading up to the defendant’s decision to publish its contents, it would be a cruel irony were she required to pay that price before her claim has even been determined.”
Rushbrooke says the defendant has “forced” Meghan to name them privately in the documents.
Antony White QC, acting for ANL, said the friends were “important potential witnesses on a key issue”.
He said: “Reporting these matters without referring to names would be a heavy curtailment of the media’s and the defendant’s entitlement to report this case and the public’s right to know about it.
“No friend’s oral evidence could be fully and properly reported because full reporting might identify her, especially as there has already been media speculation as to their identities.”
White claimed Meghan’s order would mean she could name them to anyone, including other media publications, but ANL would be barred from reporting on them.
ANL won the first court battle on 1 May when Mr Justice Warby struck out parts of Meghan’s arguments, including that ANL acted “dishonestly” in leaving out some parts of the letter she wrote to her father.
Losing the skirmish left Meghan with a bill for £67,888 as she agreed to pay ANL’s costs for the hearing.
The main article headline Meghan is suing over was: “Revealed: The letter showing true tragedy of Meghan’s rift with a father she says has ‘broken her heart into a million pieces.”
She is seeking damages from ANL for alleged misuse of private information, copyright infringement and breach of the Data Protection Act.
ANL denies the allegations, particularly her claim the letter was edited in any way.
The case is expected to go to full trial next year.