The furore over police bugging operations conducted in prison visiting rooms has widened somewhat, with allegations that significant numbers of conversations between prisoners and their legal representatives may have been taped. Angry lawyers are speculating that this could invalidate an unknown number of convictions and see dangerous criminals set free.
The Telegraph reported yesterday on allegations made by "someone with detailed knowledge" of the police bugging operation at Woodhill Prison. The paper's unnamed informant apparently said officers had bugged "hundreds of conversations" between prisoners and visitors, including lawyers and prison visitors.
It is now suggested that the police may have bugged prisoners who were not terrorist suspects. Speaking of former Thames Valley detective Mark Kearney, who worked at Woodhill and initially confirmed the bugging of MP Sadiq Khan to the media, the Telegraph's informant said:
"Mark [Kearney] didn't feel what was going on was right or legal. Every person who came in and saw these terrorist suspects was the subject of an eavesdropping operation... Initially, it was just one or two machines but it steadily increased and now covers other category A prisoners such as murderers."
It is also alleged that bugging was not confined to top-security prisons like Woodhill and Belmarsh, but may have been "nationwide".
The Telegraph takes "hundreds of conversations" to mean hundreds of different lawyer/prisoner relationships bugged, conceivably rendering hundreds of convictions unsafe. However, it appears that a significant proportion of the eavesdropping (and perhaps bag-searching, phone simcard copying etc) was actually targeted at visitors other than lawyers.
Furthermore, it seems plausible that where lawyers were taped, this will have happened multiple times for a given prisoner-lawyer pairing; as in the case of Mr Khan and Babar Ahmad. This could further reduce the number of convictions possibly rendered invalid. It could also be argued that a given set of prisoner-lawyer recordings wouldn't affect a verdict if it only began after the relevant trial.
It doesn't seem likely that any wholesale emptying of the nation's jails is on the cards, then; but there might well be some costly retrials or appeals, and some convicted terrorists and even ordinary criminals might be freed.
At least one prominent lawyer seemed to be relishing the prospect, with celebrity human-rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson telling the Telegraph: "Most of these cases will have to be brought back to court and in my view the courts will react with such fury, as a matter of principle, that those prisoners whose conversations have been bugged will have to be let out."
The only really efficient terrorists to operate in the UK lately - the 7/7 bombers - obligingly killed themselves during their first operation, but there are various other terror suspects who might now appeal. It has been speculated that non-terrorist cases affected might include those of letter "bomber" David Copeland, and Soham murderer Ian Huntley.
If the legal profession's current outrage results in Huntley being freed, though, people might start to see the lawyer/client confidentiality as part of the problem rather than the solution.
Contacted by the Reg for comment today, the Ministry of Justice refused to confirm which prisoner-lawyer pairings had been bugged at what stages of trial - or even how many.
There was some suggestion that nobody yet knew. However, the ministry did appear to confirm that non-terrorist cases were affected, with a spokesman saying: "The Prison Service may grant the police permission to operate in prison... Such co-operation is vital in the fight against serious crime and terrorism... It would not be appropriate to discuss particular prisoners or other individuals."
Meanwhile, it has been claimed that ex-sergeant Kearney was himself subjected to a major police surveillance operation by his former colleagues following the Khan buggings.
The whole matter is under investigation by Sir Christopher Rose, who has oversight of police bugging as surveillance commissioner. He is expected to report in a week's time. ®