PSNI chiefs unlawfully read a sealed letter from a former policeman suspected of circulating serving officers' personal details to inmates while in prison, a High Court judge ruled today.
Mr Justice Treacy held that Kyle Jones' right to legal professional privilege (LPP) was breached by the decision to open correspondence to his solicitor.
He said: "The removal of the applicant's right to LPP was based on mere suspicion and without any accompanying safeguards."
Mr Jones brought a judicial review challenge against his former employers for examining the letter amid unfounded fears that it could contain security information.
The ex-probationary constable, who left the police six years ago, is originally from Ballyclare in County Antrim.
He was a remand prisoner, facing robbery charges, at the time personal details on a number of officers were discovered in 2012.
Another inmate at HMP Maghaberry had handed police a list written by Mr Jones containing information on more than 40 officers.
In February 2012 he was arrested for possessing or collecting information likely to be of use to terrorists.
His house was searched and officers seized an envelope addressed to a solicitor.
Amid concerns that it may contain the details of police officers and put their lives at risk a decision was taken to open the letter.
None of the contents created a security risk.
Lawyers for the former policeman claimed the decision breached his right to privileged communication with his solicitor and his Article 8 entitlement to privacy under European law.
Counsel for the PSNI argued that senior officers could not rely on his assurances that a second list containing details on 45 police personnel had been destroyed.
However, Mr Justice Treacy ruled: "The common law right to professional privilege which the applicant enjoyed was curtailed without any lawful authority."
Another decision not to offer an assurance that no further privileged communication would be opened was also held to be unlawful.
The judge found that the police action breached Article 8 privacy entitlements too.
Granting a judicial review, he added: "There was in short a complete absence of process.
"If a mere suspicion was sufficient to override an individual's Article 8 rights, Article 8 would be largely devoid of content." ends