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Journalist wins right to access deceased person’s criminal record in legal first

Charles Thomson 1A regional journalist believes he has set a new legal precedent after winning a three-year battle for the release of a deceased person’s criminal record.

Charles Thomson, left,  of Archant’s Investigations Unit, was last week named Weekly Reporter of the Year at the Regional Press Awards for his investigation into the alleged cover-up of a 980s paedophile ring in Southend on Sea.

As part of the investigation, which forms the subject of the Unfinished: Shoebury’s Lost Boys podcast, Charles has succeeded in unlocking the criminal record of one of the suspects, now deceased.

The file released includes arrest records, charge records, mugshots, intelligence files and correspondence between police forces and its release is believed to be a legal first.

Charles, who covers Herts and Essex for the investigations unit, has not so far named the suspect as this will be the subject of a future podcast.

The release of the documents follows a three-year freedom of information battle with Essex Police.

One of the exemptions they cited was Section 38 of the FoI Act – a catch-all exemption which says that if some information has the potential to cause distress to someone, including the loved ones of deceased criminals, it can be witheld.

After Charles mounted a challenge through the Information Commissioner’s Office against some of the exemptions on public interest grounds, Essex Police relented and released a large amount of extra material, including information on the criminal histories of deceased suspects.

Having won that case, Charles then went to the National Police Chiefs Council to try to use that precedent to unlock files that they also had previously witheld, citing Section 38.

The NPCC is the custodian of criminal records accessed via the Police National Computer (PNC).

Once again the NPCC refused to release the files but Charles took the matter to an internal review which he won.

In an email to Charles, the NPCC said its FOI team has no recollection of anybody ever securing the release of a deceased offender’s file before, hence his victory appears to have set a new legal precedent.

Said Charles: “While this is a really pleasing result, and it should open the door for other journalists investigating historic cases, it has nonetheless taken me more than three years of battling with public bodies to gain access to a level of information which, in other developed countries, is freely shared with journalists.

“When you listen to an investigative podcast like In The Dark, American journalists are given carte blanche to dig around in police and courthouse archives for days at a time.

“In the UK we have to fight for years through bureaucratic red tape just to find out about convictions which occurred in public courtrooms.

“This is madness and our system has to be reformed to allow journalists greater access to information about our criminal justice system.”