A Dublin woman has been awarded €90,000 by the High Court after a newspaper ran articles about her relationship with a high-profile priest based on the illegal taping of her telephone calls.

Michelle Herrity took her action against Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Irish Mail and Daily Irish Mail on Sunday (formerly Ireland on Sunday), after Ireland on Sunday published a series of articles in November 2003.

Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne ruled the articles published about Ms Herrity and Fr Heber McMahon, then parish priest at Brackenstown in Swords, Co Dublin, constituted a deliberate, conscious and unjustified breach of Ms Herrity's right to privacy.

The court heard that Ms Herrity and Fr McMahon began an intimate relationship after Ms Herrity's marriage broke up.

A private investigator working for Ms Herrity's husband, Liam Herrity, caught Fr McMahon and Ms Herrity going on holiday to Italy and having dinner together.

Ms Justice Dunne said she accepted Ms Herrity's evidence that the marriage broke down before the relationship began and that Ms Herrity had legitimate concerns about the nature of the relationship between her husband and a young man with whom he now lives.

The court heard Mr Herrity told his wife's sister-in-law that he would have transcripts of telephone conversations published if Ms Herrity did not sign over the family home to him for €20,000.

One of the newspaper articles described the tapes as extraordinary and claimed to have 13 hours' worth of material.

Recording device

Ms Justice Dunne said there was no doubt Ms Herrity's phone line was interfered with and a recording device attached to it at the instigation of her husband.

She said the articles contained material obtained by recording Ms Herrity's telephone conversations with others, without her consent - a breach of the the 1983 Postal and Telecommunications Act.

She rejected a claim by Associated Newspapers that a private entity or person cannot be sued for breach of privacy.

And she rejected its claim that it was asserting its right to freedom of expression.

The judge said she could not see how anyone could assert a right to freedom of expression to publish transcripts of private telephone conversations where phone-tapping has been expressly prohibited by the legislature.

She said if the newspaper had chosen to write about the conduct of Fr Heber McMahon, some limited information relating to Ms Herrity could have been legitimately brought into the public domain.

But she said the paper went beyond what would have been permissible.

Ms Herrity and Fr McMahon are now living together. Fr McMahon has applied to be laicised.