A PANEL of top judges has ruled that Cleveland Police acted unlawfully when it monitored the phones of Northern Echo journalists to track down a series of leaks.

Snooping officers used laws aimed at investigating serious crime and terrorism to seize phone data from three journalists, a solicitor and two police officers as it tried to find out who was leaking information to The Northern Echo.

Tuesday’s written judgement from specialist court, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, has been sent to police watchdog the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and Sir Thomas Winsor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, for consideration.

And Cleveland Police said today it was calling in an external force to review the findings of the tribunal.

The judgement makes clear that the two officers whose phones were monitored, Steve Matthews and Mark Dias, did not commit any criminal offences. This made monitoring their phones unlawful.

Judges said: “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.”

They said whatever the “subjective belief” of the force, “there was no lawful basis” for obtaining the applications to seize phone records, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), in 2012.

The sheer amount of call data seized – more than a million minutes’ worth – was excessive, they said.

Under just one application, the force looked at four months’ of call records, and in total, more than a million minutes’ worth were checked, as officers tried to discover who had leaked information about an internal grievance, and about an internal report which had uncovered institutional racism within Cleveland Police.

Police should have considered that their actions went against the right to freedom of speech, enshrined in law by the European Convention of Human Rights as an essential part of democracy, when they snooped on the personal and work phones of Echo reporters Graeme Hetherington and Julia Breen.

They said Cleveland Police should have attempted to find the sources of the leaks by other means, rather than resorting to breaching privacy and freedom of speech rights by using RIPA.

RIPA is only intended to be used if police are confident that a crime has been committed – but Cleveland Police’s own evidence showed that investigating officer, Detective Inspector Tony Rock, was not even sure himself if there was a criminal offence.

His applications, signed off by the force’s current head of crime, Superintendent Peter McPhillips, were based on “no legal advice at all upon which the respondent could rely”, judges said, despite police claims that officers were acting on advice from their solicitor.

The judgement also detailed how then-Chief Constable Jacqui Cheer ordered DI Rock to investigate the leak after she emailed all officers “sternly counselling them against leaks to the press”.

RIPA can be used to check data from phones and other methods of communication – but only to detect crime which stands a reasonable chance of prosecution.

Earlier this month Cleveland Police apologised for its unlawful use of RIPA and announced a major overhaul of its Professional Standards Department, which was responsible for the investigation.

This morning Chief Constable Iain Spittal, who joined the force after the unlawful activities, said: 

Cleveland Police Chief Constable Iain Spittal said: “In 2012 officers at Cleveland Police used powers given to them under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) to try and identify who was giving information about the force to the press. The Investigatory Powers Tribunal has ruled that our use of these powers was not justified.

“Although I have already contacted the people affected by this and said sorry, sorry on its own isn’t enough. Because of this the Police and Crime Commissioner and I announced, earlier this year, an expert review of the Professional Standards Department and all RIPA use over the past six years.

“I am proud to lead Cleveland Police. I am confident that those who work with me will continue to strive to be the best that they can be each and every day. When we get things wrong, as we did here, we will say sorry and work to make things right.”

Scott Taylor, Mr Matthews' solicitor: The Judgement from the Investigatory Powers Tribunal  is a damning indictment of Cleveland Police and their abuse of powers under Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, originally enacted to help protect the public and not attack the basic freedoms they enjoy.

"Abuses such as this undermine the public’s trust in such legislation. Civilians and other police officers alike need to know how widespread this abuse of those powers has been and what will be done about it. Others subjected to such unlawful abuse of powers need to be told. This case was indefensible from the outset and was at considerable cost to the public purse and to the Police Federation of England and Wales, who supported Mr Matthews throughout . A full enquiry into the possible widespread abuse of these powers is required.”

Mr Dias said: “I am relieved their Lordships in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal came to a conclusive finding. No criminal offences and no regard for Human Rights. No justification for the excessive use of surveillance powers against Mr Matthews, journalists, solicitors and myself. The use of surveillance was unlawful in every regard.

“Cleveland Police labelled me a criminal in a deliberate attempt to smear my reputation and ostracise me from work colleagues and friends. There was no basis for this allegation and these venomous personal attacks continued after I departed the police service in 2013.”

He said it was a “text book case of whistleblower suppression” by the professional standards department.

An IPCC spokesman said this morning: “We are aware of today’s ruling by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal in relation to Cleveland Police. We will review the tribunal’s full report carefully before considering whether this case requires our direct involvement.”