A judge has said claims for compensation by those affected by the News of the World phone-hacking scandal should not be delayed by the ongoing criminal investigation.
Mr Justice Vos told London's High Court: "I am extremely unattracted to the idea of putting back the determination of these civil cases pending criminal proceedings which have not yet even resulted in charges."
The police inquiry could take a very long time while the civil cases could be ready for trial by the end of this year, he told a courtroom packed with media, lawyers for about 20 claimants, and one alleged victim - former MP George Galloway.
Directing that documents relating to the civil proceedings should not be filed with the court in the usual way or open to inspection, the judge said it was of fundamental importance to avoid prejudice to the criminal proceedings.
He said it would be best to limit the civil action by having four test cases - possibly actress Sienna Miller, interior designer Kelly Hoppen, commentator Andy Gray and sports agent Sky Andrew - as these were well-advanced and covered a range of issues and levels of damage.
The main issue was not whether there was a conspiracy, which News Group denied, admitting only isolated incidents, but about whether there was interception, how much, what was done with the information and what damage was suffered. The judge said: "Otherwise we will be going on forever. Some people may want to, but I don't."
He added: "At the bottom of all this is a claim for damages and the most important thing for the claimants is to have a guide as to what damages they may be entitled."
Friday's day-long hearing follows a series of recent rulings over the disclosure of information by the Metropolitan Police and Vodafone relating to material forfeited by private detective Glenn Mulcaire who, with News of the World reporter Clive Goodman, was jailed over royal phone taps in 2007, and data from other mobile phone users. At the end of last week, eight claimants - including Ms Miller and former culture secretary Tessa Jowell - received apologies from the newspaper.
An estimated £20 million has been set aside for payouts. But Hugh Tomlinson QC, who represents a number of claimants including Ms Miller, told the judge that the case was not just about damages. He said it was "important to bear in mind" that "private information, sometimes very private information, has been obtained, or so they infer from the documents".
It is understood that actor Jude Law, who was previously in a relationship with Ms Miller, is also to take legal action against the paper.