Elveden police seek records access
Legal history was made today when Operation Elveden officers were made to ask permission to probe journalists' phone records in a public court hearing.
A lawyer for the Metropolitan Police appeared before Mr Justice Sweeney at the Old Bailey to request access to information involving two journalists and two public officials, who cannot be named for legal reasons.
One of the named journalists was one of those whose cases were recently dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service following a review.
Following lengthy legal argument on Friday, the senior judge today approved the police applications for all three production orders.
Before now, bids to delve into journalists' personal data were held behind closed doors under the controversial Ripa - Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 - legislation.
But following a report by the Interception of Communications Commissioner, they now need to be brought before a judge under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.
Because the Elveden application was the first to fall under the new rules, Mr Justice Sweeney made an "exception" for it to be heard in open court.
He said: "Normally applications would be held in private but given they are the first of their type and following the interception commissioner report on the change of approach to applications of this type ... it seemed to me exceptional and subject to submissions it would be appropriate for them to be held in open court."
He added that he was not "intending to set a precedent at all" and in cases where applications could interfere with an ongoing investigation it would be "very surprising" if they were heard in open court.
The application related to the investigation and prosecution over allegations that public officials were paid by tabloid newspapers for tips.
The Met officers wanted access to phone call data, including subscriber information and bill records, which involved serving notice to the phone service provider as well as to the journalists , the court heard.
Jeremy Johnson QC, for the Met, justified breaching the individuals' privacy by saying it was in the "public interest".
He argued there were "reasonable grounds" to believe a crime had been committed and the information would be of "substantial" value to the investigation.
He said the application was brought only after steps had already been taken to gain information from other sources.
He added: "The police conceded it involved an interference with the right to respect for correspondence, the right to freedom of expression, and that the interference was particularly acute in the context of communications between a journalist and his or her source but that it was necessary to make."
He asserted that the production orders were "proportionate" in the interests of preventing crime.
Two out of the three applications were opposed by defence lawyers.
Mr Justice Sweeney approved all the applications, although two of them were made on more limited terms than the Met had asked for.
The £20 million Operation Elveden was launched in 2011 following public inquiries and has led to the prosecution of 28 public officials and 27 journalists.
So far it has led to the convictions of 21 officials but no successful trials of journalists.