A PANEL of high court judges has awarded damages to two former police officers whose phone records were seized after they were suspected of leaking stories to The Northern Echo.

Specialist court the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled in January that the force acted unlawfully when it monitored their phones, and those of another officer, a solicitor and two journalists from the newspaper, as it tried to track down a whistleblower on police racism.

Another police force will now investigate whether any individuals within Cleveland should face criminal or disciplinary charges in relation to the phone snooping.

Today two of the former officers, Steve Matthews and Mark Dias, were awarded £3,000 each in compensation – as the judges issued a damning judgement in which they accused the force of trying to mislead the tribunal.

Snooping officers had used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) legislation to try to found out who was leaking information to two Northern Echo reporters.

Judges said Cleveland Police had tried to resist disclosing certain documents, "presumably hoping that the Tribunal would arrive at a false conclusion as to the facts".

They said it was "hardly surprising" that those affected were "deeply suspicious" of Cleveland Police's claims, and warned that if the force had not been entirely open then "significant consequences may be expected to follow for those responsible".

It also emerged that yet another Cleveland Police officer had lodged a claim with the IPT alleging that more than a year-and-a-half worth of his phone records had been seized by the force.

And The Northern Echo understands there could be at least five more individuals – a mix of civilians and police officers – affected, who have claims pending.

The IPT judgement has been sent to police watchdog the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and Sir Thomas Winsor, the chief inspector of Constabulary, for consideration.

The ruling relating to the two officers reads: “In our judgment this was an indefensible claim which ought not to have been defended.

"Each of these claimants was the victim on the unlawful use of investigatory powers.”

The force was also criticised for failing to make full disclosure during the original hearing in December last year after it emerged that another former police officer, who was working as a private investigator, had also been targeted.

Mr Dias said in a statement: "I must be brief because there is outstanding litigation between us but I am obviously extremely pleased with both the findings and remedy determination of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. Steve and I have been vindicated and any reputational slurs have been obliterated.

“It has been a long journey to ‘right the wrong’ since 2012, which is not quite over. Closure is not in my hands but I hope the force take on board the findings and embraces the opportunity to settle matters to allow me and my family to get on with our lives.”

Mr Matthews added: "It has taken a long time to get to this stage and we are just wanting closure on it now but this judgement, even though it is highly critical of the force, does not really give us any justice.

"The force still doesn't seem to accept it has done anything wrong but they have acted illegally and I feel those responsible should be investigated for committing criminal offences.

"There should be a full investigation into this flawed attempted stitch-up."

Scott Taylor, of Taylor Law, who represented five of those targeted, said: "The judgement is a damning indictment of Cleveland Police and their use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) have indicated, “In our judgement this was an indefensible claim which ought not to have been defended” .

"Not only was the case defended but there have been a further six months of arguments relating to disclosure, for a case already lost, at huge expense to the public purse. It is incredulous to imagine that this is an isolated case. This case involved three police officers, one the then Chairman of Cleveland Police Federation, two journalists and a solicitor.

"The application to obtain their data was approved within Cleveland Police, yet crumbled when subjected to Judicial scrutiny. My clients have little doubt this case is the tip of the iceberg of potentially unlawful applications and call for an independent inquiry into those potential abuses of these powers.

"We are already instructed by numerous individuals, Police Officers and Civilians, relating to breaches of RIPA. There are also civil claims pending for Claimants in this case.

"Mr Matthews and Mr Shakeel would particularly like to thank the Police Federation of England and Wales for their steadfast support in this case, without which, this case would not have been possible."

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen said: "(The) judgement shows just how critical it is that I push ahead with my election pledge to launch an independent commission into Cleveland Police. We need a police force that does justice to the hugely important work of our frontline officers - the men and women who work night and day to keep communities safe.

"They need to be properly supported by an organisation which enjoys full public confidence.

"I am a staunch believer in a free and independent press.

"Our strict anti-terrorism laws are there to be used in the interests of protecting national security, not to enable the police to pursue journalists and whistleblowers. The Northern Echo has proved fearless in the pursuit of this story and they deserve great credit for it.

"Cleveland Police now need to take on board the findings and embrace this opportunity to put an end to this truly unacceptable chapter in the force's history."

A spokeswoman for Cleveland Police said: “A large amount of work is underway to ensure that such activity as occurred in 2012 doesn’t happen again and that lessons are learned. This work includes the ongoing review of professional standards and an external review of RIPA authorisations relating to professional standards and spanning the last six years.

“Following the IPT ruling in January Cleveland Police received a number of complaints linked to the judgment. We referred these mandatorily to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) which determined that they could be investigated locally.

"However, the Force decided that it should identify another police force to investigate these complaints and is currently in the process of discussing ‘terms of reference’ with another UK police force before an agreement is formally reached. The Force feels that this independence is important taking into account the matters raised and this investigation will determine any next steps.

“Separately, the Force has made a self-referral to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). The Force is working in cooperation with the ICO and this work is ongoing.”

Barry Coppinger, Cleveland's Police and Crime Commissioner, said: "Since January a considerable amount of work has been carried out to ensure lessons are learned for the future."

He said the force's lawyers Weightmans LLP were auditing every case over the last six years involving the use of RIPA, and that a programme was underway to reform the force's professional standards department, which was behind the RIPA applications.

He added: "The force has confirmed that matters raised by this tribunal will be investigated by an outside force to determine whether there is a case for disciplinary or criminal charges to be brought against any individuals. That is a decision I support and I have asked to be kept updated on progress."