A phone hacking scandal refresher
6 July 2011
The News of the World phone-hacking scandal has reignited over claims that phones belonging to the families of 7/7 bombing victims and murdered children such as Milly Dowler were hacked.
The scandal has been rumbling on since 2007, but is again the main story in the news. The affair has been the subject of a number of court hearings, mostly surrounding disclosure by News International in the ongoing private compensation claims by alleged victims. There are important issues of privacy and freedom of the press surrounding some of the allegations, but primarily this is a criminal investigation into the illegal hacking of mobile phones.
For those who are coming to the issue for the first time, or need a little revision, there is no better starting point than the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) Blog, which has been covering the scandal in meticulous detail since its launch around 18 months ago. In particular, see:
- Phone Hacking: Milly Dowler, Colin Stagg and a public inquiry?
- Phone Hacking News: disclosure, new lead case, a fifth arrest and a “new approach” from News International
- News: Phone Hacking – More Victims, Adjudication and Inquiry
- Phone-Hacking, Muck-Raking, and the Future of Surveillance – Simon Chesterman
- News: Phone hacking, disclosure, settlement and another arrest
Also, see our most recent post on the issue, Police may have duty to inform victims of phone hacking, the BBC News Q&A: Phone-hacking scandal at News of the World and their useful timeline. Legal blogger David Allen Green has also been covering the scandal in detail, see his most recent post at the New Statesman: Reading what Rebekah Brooks says.
In other news…
With the phone hacking affair generating so much heat and light, there has been little space for other news. There have, however, been two other important legal stories in the last two days. First, the Sun and the Daily Mirror have been in court being prosecuted for contempt over their coverage of the killing of the Jo Yeates murder investigation, and in particular for their coverage of the early arrest of Christopher Jeffries. The current Attorney General has already successfully prosecuted the Daily Mail and The Sun for their online coverage of a murder case.
Secondly, the government has published the Police (Detention and Bail) Bill, the sole purpose of which is to reverse the effect of a controversial decision of the High Court which upheld a county court judge who overturned a long-standing practice in relation to police bail (see this post for background). The bill will be debated tomorrow – follow the official parliamentary bill tracker for updates. Yesterday, the Supreme Court declined to stay the High Court order, stating in a short press release:
This application is unusual and it is questionable whether it would be open to the Court to grant this relief. In any event, however, the judgment was given on 19 May and an application for permission to appeal was made on 21 June. The Government has announced its intention to introduce emergency legislation this Thursday, 7 July. In these circumstances, the Court has decided that the application should be dismissed.
Under Rule 37 of the Supreme Court Rules, the court may in “wholly exceptional circumstances” suspend the order of a court, as it did recently in a case involving a Home Office immigration policy to prevent forced marriages, pending the Home Office’s appeal in the Supreme Court. I cannot track down an official decision, but the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants reported the decision. Whether the Supreme Court has the power to stay a court’s interpretation of a statute is an open question, and one which the court itself appears to be unsure about.
In the meantime, the Home Office is pushing its bill through Parliament as quickly as possible, in the knowledge that the legal position of thousands of suspects on bail or in detention is questionable at best. The Supreme Court is to hear the appeal on 25 July, which although a very short timeframe compared to ordinary cases, will still probably be overtaken by a change in the law. The police may still be vulnerable to claims of unlawful detention, however, if the court upholds the decision.
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Thank you for linking to my post on the Hookway (detention of suspects) case. A factor in the case which seems unsatisfactory is that the appeal from District Judge (Magistrates’ Court) Finestein was heard by a single High Court judge. Many deprecate this practice and I have heard some say that it is unlawful. Traditionally, case-stated appeals from Magistrates were heard by a Divisional Court of the Queen’s Bench Division. I hope that the Supreme Court expresses its views about this.
I also hope that the Supreme Court clarifies the position relating to stay of judgment/stay of execution.
I would have liked to have seen a “sunset clause” in the Police (Detention and Bail) Bill so that Parliament had to revisit PACE 1984 Part IV and, hopefully, replace it with an updated code relating to detention and police bail. That is what is really needed in this extremely important area of criminal practice.
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