The public and media would undoubtedly be interested to know the contents of the late Prince Philip’s will. However, as a unique Court of Appeal ruling made plain, satisfying public curiosity is not always in the public interest.
The President of the High Court Family Division ordered in April 2021 that Prince Philip’s will should remain sealed from the public gaze for 90 years. He gave a public judgment following a private hearing attended only by the Attorney General and legal representatives of the prince’s executor. The date of the hearing was not publicised in advance and members of the media were not invited to attend.
In his ruling, the President noted the unique position of the monarch as head of state and the inherent public interest in protecting her dignity and that of her close family. For over a century, royal wills had been sealed as a matter of convention. Whilst there might be public curiosity in the will’s provisions, he detected no true public interest in such wholly private information becoming common knowledge.
A media organisation’s challenge to the President’s ruling focused on his decision to hold the hearing behind closed doors without any prior announcement that it was to take place. That was said to conflict with the fundamental principle that litigation should be conducted openly and in public. Representatives of the media should at least have been permitted to argue that the application to seal the will should be heard in open court.
Dismissing the appeal, however, the Court of Appeal noted that the Attorney General attended the hearing in his unique and historic role as guardian of the public interest. His view as to where the public interest lay was rightly regarded as compelling. There was no requirement to permit the media to attend a hearing at which an application was made that a hearing should be held in private.
The Court acknowledged that wills are generally open to public inspection and that the law applies equally to members of the royal family. That did not, however, mean that the law produced the same outcomes in all situations. The circumstances were exceptional and the Court was not sure that there was a specific public interest in knowing how the assets of the royal family are distributed.
The hearing took place at a hugely sensitive time for the Queen and her family and undoubtedly involved confidential information relating to personal financial matters. Prior announcement of the hearing date would inevitably have created a media storm and wide public conjecture over an extended period. That in itself would have been contrary to the maintenance of the dignity of the sovereign.