The government published plans Friday for Britain's first law granting a right of privacy, allowing both public figures and ordinary people to sue for "unwarranted intrusion" into their private lives.
The plans are included in a "consultation paper" ordered by the Lord Chancellor, Lord James Mackay, in the aftermath of a flurry of press reports on private scandals of ministers and the royal family.There is currently no legal right of privacy in the British system, with intrusions now dealt with under laws on libel, tresspass and confidentiality.
Mackay's proposal would enable individuals to sue in civil courts for damages up to $15,000 if they are caused "substantial distress" when their privacy is infringed by the media or another person.
The proposed law would cover health records, personal communications and family and personal relationships.
Press organizations and individuals who are sued would be able to offer defenses including that the intrusion into privacy was in the public interest, but British newspaper editors said the new law would allow politicians to hide wrongdoing.
"The public has a right to know what Cabinet ministers are up to," said Andrew Neil, editor of The Sunday Times.
The proposal is written so an ordinary citizen would be more likely to succeed in a privacy suit than "a person who has sought publicity."
But even for public figures it says there are private issues that should be off limits.
"There may be specific areas of a person's private life which may be (illegally) invaded even though the person has opened up others to the public," the proposal says. It does not give specifics.
Mackay said his proposal will be revised after a period of consultation and it could become law within a year.
The government is also considering a law on criminal sanctions against intrusions into privacy, in addition to the civil suits allowed in Friday's proposal.