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Von Hannover (No.2): Court rejects Princess Caroline von Hannover’s human rights complaint

Reference: (2012) 55 E.H.R.R. 15 Court: European Court of Human Rights (Grand Chamber)

Date of Judgment: 7 Feb 2012

Princess Caroline of Hannover had been known for bringing various privacy actions to the courts, especially in preventing the publication of photographs of herself and her family. The result of these actions culminated in the case of Von Hannover v Germany (no.59320/00) in which the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held that the decisions of the German Federal Courts to dismiss previous privacy claims brought by her contravened her Article 8.

However on 7 February 2012, in the case of Von Hannover v Germany (No 2) the European Court ruled that the publication of photographs of Princess Caroline and her husband, Prince Ernst von Hannover, during a skiing holiday in 2002 did not infringe their privacy rights under Article 8.

The publication which accompanied the photographs was an article concerning the poor health of her late father, Prince Rainier of Monaco. The German Federal Court held that the press was permitted to report upon the way in which Prince Rainier’s children reconciled their familial obligations with the needs of their private life, including the need to go on holiday. In addition, the Court held that Prince Rainer’s ill health was a matter of general interest and an ‘event in contemporary society’.

On 16 June 2008, the German Federal Constitutional Court dismissed complaints by the Prince and Princess in relation to the Federal Court’s decision. They then took their complaint to the ECHR, and the question for the Court was whether the refusal of the German Courts to prohibit any further publication of the photographs in question breached the applicants’ Article 8 rights.

In reaching its decision the ECHR observed that the Federal Court had changed its approach in response to the decision in Von Hannover v Germany (no.59320/00). Indeed, the Court highlighted that in regards to that decision, it was imperative to attach significance to the questions of whether the relevant article contents were more than a desire to gratify public curiosity or whether they contributed to a factual debate. It was also recognised that the interest of readers being entertained generally carried less weight than privacy interests.

The applicants argued that the media would use any ‘event of contemporary society’ claim as a means to justify the publication of photographs of them. However this argument was rejected by the ECHR for two reasons: firstly, it was not its task to give a ruling on future publications and such proceedings could be brought in the national courts if necessary and secondly, in this instance the Federal Court had not been unreasonable to characterise the illness of the reigning sovereign as an ‘event in contemporary society’.

Furthermore, the ECHR believed that it was significant that the Federal Court had upheld an injunction which prevented the publication of two other photographs on the basis that they were being published solely for entertainment purposes. The ECHR reiterated the proposition that “not only does the press have the task of imparting information and ideas on all matters of public interest; the public also has a right to receive them”. It was also noted that in its judgement, the Constitutional Court had stated that where an article was simply a pretext for publishing a photograph of a high profile person and no contribution was made to the formation of public opinion, then there would be no grounds for permitting Article 10 interests (freedom of expression) to prevail. In regards to the context of the publication in question the ECHR held that the photograph did to some extent “contribute to a debate of general interest”.

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