Legal Issues Surrounding the Privacy of the Royal Family in the UK

The Royal Family are treated as any other citizens of the United Kingdom when it comes to privacy rights. The recent publication of nude photos of Prince Harry has revived discussions about the Royal Family’s rights to privacy. The Royal Family is neither afforded, nor have they requested any special laws or rules for themselves, but some members have been known to exercise the same rights to legal redress that regular citizens enjoy in the UK.

According to a 2008 article in The Telegraph, the Duke of Edinburgh cited the landmark ruling in the Max Mosley sex case in a bid for more privacy protections for himself and for the Royal Family. Some person or persons released allegedly “untrue” medical information that the Duke had prostate cancer. This was clearly a violation of his right to medical confidentiality. Rupert Murdoch’s “News of the World” published the untrue claims. The complaint was taken to the Press Complaints Commission. Most notably, this was the first time a senior member of the royal clan had taken such public action.

The most recent incident is not a release of medical information, but it involves nude photos of Prince Harry that were taken without permission and in his private hotel room. The nude photos were sold to the press and released to the world. Many insist that the photos were a breach of his privacy because he was in his private quarters.

The LA Times reports that British tabloids were reluctant to publish the photos after the Rupert Murdoch phone hacking scandal that sent several employees to jail. While there is no law prohibiting publishing the nude Prince Harry photos, the courts may have something to say about the private hotel room and the act of taking photos without his knowledge or permission. These are areas where the prince had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Like any other nation, the UK has its own legal determinations about privacy rights, and the law applies equally to the Royal Family and to the average citizen. According to lawessays,

“There is no right to privacy in UK law even after the Human Rights Act 1998, and Parliament has shown a lack of enthusiasm for creating such a right. However, the judiciary has developed the doctrine of breach of confidence in a way that provides a limited right to privacy, particularly since the Human Rights Act 1998. Although Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights creates a right to respect for private life, this is not a right to privacy. Also Article 8 must be balanced with Article 10 which guarantees freedom of expression, which is significant when the press is alleged to have breached an individual’s right to privacy.” 

Malone v Metropolitan Police Commissioner (1979) established a precedent that police wiretaps are not illegal because there was no right to privacy in common law that could be breached. By comparison, the United States protects privacy rights.

The only legal engines that empower privacy rights in the UK are “the right to confidence” and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The right to confidence is stated this way:

“The law of breach of confidence is a flexible doctrine which can be used to protect private information in many situations.”

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights is as follows: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

In summary, The Royal Family has only two routes to privacy protection in the UK: the right to confidentiality, and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The UK is not like the U.S. where privacy laws clearly intend to give citizens rights to privacy and to protect those rights. The British Royal Family may be faced with vastly more threats to privacy than the average extended family, but they have no more protections under the law than any other citizens of the UK. In addition, the Royal Family have not demanded or requested exceptions that would apply only to them.