Cleveland Police officers used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, aimed at investigating serious crime and terrorism, to seize phone data from Northern Echo journalists.
The Investigatory Powers Tribunal has now ruled the use of Ripa to find the source of leaks to the Echo was unlawful.
Earlier this month Cleveland Police chief Iain Spittal announced a major overhaul of the force’s Professional Standards Department and apologised in person to Echo journalists Graeme Hetherington and Julia Breen.
A written judgement issued by the Tribunal today 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.
The sheer amount of call data seized – more than a million minutes’ worth – was “excessive”, they said.
Echo editor Andy Richardson told HTFP: “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.
“Like many local papers the Northern Echo has a proud tradition of exposing wrongdoing and corruption. Life would be so much easier for police forces, politicians and dodgy businessmen if investigative reporting simply withered and died.
“We cannot allow that to happen. This case shows that having teams of experienced reporters unearthing stories in their local communities is a valuable in 2017 as it was in 1870 when the Echo was founded.”
Chief Constable Spittal, pictured above left, said: “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.”