Met police to face tribunal over decision to access Plebgate phone records

Investigatory powers tribunal will require police to give evidence regarding use of Ripa legislation to obtain Sun journalists’ data


New Scotland Yard in central London, the headquarters of the Metropolitan police.
New Scotland Yard in central London, the headquarters of the Metropolitan police. The force used the controversial Ripa legislation to access journalists’ mobile phone records. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP

The Metropolitan police is being taken to court in a landmark case over its decision to secretly obtain journalists’ phone records in an attempt to identify the mole behind the Plebgate saga involving the then cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell.

The force has been accused of using “coercive legal powers” normally reserved for criminals and counter-terrorism operations to intercept the communications of three Sun journalists and calls to and from the tabloid’s newsdesk in 2012.

At an interlocutory hearing in the high court on Tuesday, News Group Newspapers (NGN) outlined its skeleton case.

It argued the police had not demonstrated that what they did was “necessary in a democratic society” in the meaning of article 10 of the European convention on human rights, which protects journalistic sources.

A full hearing before the investigatory powers tribunal will take place next Monday following the legal action taken by NGN, the Sun’s political editor, Tom Newton Dunn, and two other reporters, Anthony France and Craig Woodhouse.

Police monitored the journalists’ mobile phones for a week, recording incoming and outgoing calls, and used GPRS data to spy on their locations.

The Met snooped on the newsdesk for an hour and a half, the court will hear, in its attempts to discover who leaked the claim that Mitchell called Downing Street police officers “plebs”.

The case is the first of its kind and will be presided over by a panel of five senior legal figures, including two high court judges.

It has previously emerged that the police used the controversial Regulation and Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), created to oversee all communication interception in criminal investigations, to obtain the data.

Gavin Millar QC, representing NGN, said: “This is a hugely important case. We never try these cases in an open court in this country. It is a human rights claim.”

At a pre-tribunal hearing in the high court, it was agreed that several Met officers would give evidence.

NGN’s skeleton argument said: “It is notable that the witness evidence filed by the Metropolitan police service (MPS) does not address why, in each instance, a Ripa authorisation by a police officer was the chosen measure to seek to identify the source.”

The Sun will argue that it was open to the police to progress their investigation in other ways and that they had not gone to NGN to ask further questions.

Instead, it will say, they used “coercive legal powers” to access private phone data and did not demonstrate that Ripa trumped the rights of journalists under article 10.

NGN’s skeleton case says the internal form submitted as evidence shows the word “proportionate is repeated time and again, as if doing so is the solution to all problems, but there is no indication the relevant legal principles were understood”.

Ripa requests from mobile phone companies can be issued by a senior police officer and are generally made covertly to protect the police investigation.

The use of the legislation against the press has been highly criticised and the Met is facing several further actions from journalists.

Posted: 14 July 2015