Legal profession

A general view of New Scotland Yard on October 2, 2008 (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

  © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The news that the UK’s Metropolitan Police had obtained the “telecommunications data” of a journalist so as to identify his confidential source has significant implications for criminal and civil lawyers — and also for their clients.

What the Met did was simple: they merely completed a request form under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) and sent it to the journalist’s mobile telephone service provider. As long as the RIPA request is approved by the appropriate senior police officer, the telephone company provides the requested information by return. This information is not the actual content of a call or voicemail — that would (or should) require an intercept warrant — but all the accompanying “metadata” (a list of calls to and from the mobile, their duration and times, and even the geographic location of the mobile during the call) as well as subscriber information.

For the police, asking for this telecommunications data is routine. Every year the police and other public authorities make about half a million RIPA requests. None of these requests need a warrant, and none need consent. Indeed, the subscriber is not even told the request has been made. All this information is provided silently and easily to the police force or other public body making the request. There are no real safeguards against abuse.

So, if the police can casually use RIPA to obtain the telecommunications data of the political editor of the Sun newspaper, is there any limit on who else they would seek this data on? And even if there was such a limit, how would anyone know that it was not being respected? 

Last weekend the Sunday Mirror reported, almost in passing, that Chris Grayling may be sacked from the UK cabinet:

So Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is expected to get the chop and be replaced by Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers.

This would be welcome news. Mr Grayling has not been a success as justice secretary and lord chancellor, in respect of either policy making or political leadership. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a worse ministerial performance. 

Earlier this month, a UK government department told senior judges something rather extraordinary: that the department was resorting to an “emergency measure”.

But this was not the Home Office dealing with the aftermath of widespread riots, or the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs coping with sudden flooding of villages and towns. 

A fortnight ago the UK government had a disaster in a London criminal court.

It was a disaster which had been one year in the making – and one which was widely predicted. And it was a disaster the impact of which will become even more serious – unless government policy now changes.

In essence, the calamity was that a prosecution for complex fraud – the Operation Cotton case – was stayed (that is, terminated) by a judge on the application of the defendants. This was, of course, unwelcome in itself: it meant alleged fraudsters could walk free without trial. 

Lady Justice does not always have her eyes covered: for example, contrary to popular belief, she does not wear a blindfold on top of the Old Bailey.

Sometimes she is depicted by artists as being blindfolded, and sometimes she is not. (Perhaps wisely, those statues and paintings which have Lady Justice blindfolded tend to have her with the sword safely lowered; and whether someone brandishing a sword whilst wearing a blindfold is an appropriate image for any system of justice is a matter of opinion.) But there is no consensus among painters and sculptors as to whether Lady Justice should be wearing a blindfold or not.

There is similar inconsistency in what parts of the justice system we are allowed to see, as members of the public or even as jurors or parties to a claim or prosecution. Some parts of our legal process are open, whilst other aspects are hidden from our view. This is because there is no general principle of open justice in the jurisdiction of England and Wales: it is often a game of pass the blindfold as any court case continues.