The Investigatory Powers Tribunal has ruled that the use of Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) to find the source of leaks to the Northern Echo was unlawful.
The ruling was expected to be critical as the Cleveland Police new Chief Inspector Iain Spittal had already announced a major overhaul of the force’s Professional Standards Department and in December apologised in person to Echo journalists Graeme Hetherington and Julia Breen.
In December, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) in London heard that the force used anti-terror legislation, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), to find out the source of damaging leaks.
The force tracked the phones of Northern Echo journalists Graeme Hetherington and Julia Breen over months in 2012 – while she was on maternity leave – as well as those of other individuals.
Before the Judgement in January, Mr Spittal said the panel had indicated the force’s use of RIPA to find the source of leaks to the media was unlawful. The force did lose a high-profile employment tribunal, as well as facing court cases and disciplinary hearings in recent months.
Mr Spittal was clear: “Whilst we have not received the final judgment, on behalf of the organisation, I feel it is right to apologise for the use of RIPA in 2012. As a result, before Christmas I made contact with the individuals concerned to offer personal apologies to them.”
Mr Spittal was not in charge of the force at the time of the phone tracking and said that since he joined the force in 2013 there had been no use of RIPA provisions to identify the source of leaks to the media.
The final written judgement issued by the Tribunal on January 31 2017 reads: “The duration and extent… (of the monitoring) and the involvement, without any consideration or legal advice, of journalists and a solicitor would have been most unlikely to be justified.”
The judges added whatever the “subjective belief” of the force, “there was no lawful basis” for obtaining the applications to seize phone records, under RIPA in 2012.
Echo editor Andy Richardson said: “We are delighted to see that the law has come down on the side of reporters who were trying to expose matters of public interest rather than police officers who were attempting to stifle the truth.
“This is a victory for the free press. I hope it reminds the public that having strong local newspapers is a vital part of the democratic process. We need your continued support. I also hope it reminds newspaper owners how important it is for them to give editors sufficient resources to undertake major, long-running investigations.”
The full judgement is available online at http://www.ipt-uk.com/docs/Judgment_DIAS.pdf