Bugging devices planted in a prison telephone were illegally used to record privileged conversations between an inmate and his solicitor, The Times has learnt.
Defence lawyers said last night that the breach confirms long-held suspicions that the recording of legal visits is widespread. Security experts told The Times that they believed that dozens of prisoners are routinely the subject of covert surveillance.
The revelation comes days after it emerged that an MP’s meeting with a jailed constituent had been recorded. However the taping of legal meetings is considered far more serious because it may breach a defendant’s rights and has the potential to collapse criminal trials.
The full transcripts of the taped conversations with a 71-year-old man who is serving life for murder only came to light because they were disclosed to Simon Creighton, the solicitor who was caught up in the surveillance.
The revelation will bring demands for Jack Straw to widen the official inquiry into the bugging of Sadiq Khan, a Muslim MP visiting a terror suspect, to investigate the extent of covert surveillance in Britain’s prisons.
Mr Straw, the Justice Secretary, told MPs yesterday that Sir Christopher Rose, the Chief Surveillance Commissioner, is to head an inquiry into the bugging of a conversation involving Mr Khan and Babar Ahmad when the MP visited him in Woodhill jail.
Mr Creighton’s case involves Harry Roberts, who was convicted of the murder of three police officers in Shepherd’s Bush, West London, in 1966. Last night the solicitor said: “If they are prepared to go to these lengths in this case, it makes one wonder what they are prepared to do with other prisoners, particularly those convicted of serious offences.”
Roberts, currently in Littlehey prison in Cambridgeshire, is involved in a long battle to be released on parole. His 30-year minimum term expired 11 years ago.
His parole hearings have been held in secret but in documents sent to his solicitor, a government-appointed lawyer included transcripts of bugged telephone conversations. Two transcripts of discussions betweeen Mr Creighton and Roberts when he was in Channings Wood jail were found with other legal documents.
The transcripts of calls made in 2005 and 2006 include every word spoken from the moment that a receptionist at Mr Creighton’s firm answers the phone to Roberts and he asks: “Can I speak to Simon”.
Mr Creighton said that the transcripts included discussions of legal tactics that he was going to employ in court proceedings planned as part of Roberts’s struggle to win parole. They also included discussions about problems that Roberts was having in jail.
Mr Creighton, of Bhatt Murphy solicitors in London, said: “I am deeply shocked by this breach of such an important and fundamental right. It is especially worrying that it occurred in this case where there were already heightened sensitivities because of the decision made by the parole board to receive secret evidence.
“Had the secrecy order not been lifted it would never have come to light and it makes me wonder whether this is a more common practice than anyone has previously dared to imagine.”
He said that the bugging of legal telephone calls was a breach of common law and the European Convention of Human Rights.
It is not clear whether the bugging operation was being operated by the police or prison service.
The telephone calls of all prisoners are subject to monitoring but the recording or monitoring of calls to legal advisers is banned.
Prisoners have expressed concerns frequently that telephone calls with their lawyers and legal visits are being bugged. Mr Creighton said: “There has always been a degree of paranoia among prisoners that their calls are recorded. Sometimes they say that clicks heard during conversations are recordings being switched off. Whenever this has been raised with the authorities they have always denied it.”
Gareth Peirce, Mr Ahmad’s solicitor, said that defence lawyers had written to the governors of Woodhill and Belmarsh prisons on a number of occasions seeking assurances that legal visits were not being bugged.
Ms Peirce said: “Many prisoners . . . believe that their visits are being listened to and defence lawyers are concerned that they are not able to reassure them on that score.
“The position is very disturbing. Bugging of legal visits would be a serious intrusion. There is an absolute right to confidentiality when it comes to legal visits. To justify such a thing happening would need the Home Secretary to authorise it. If it were found to have happened, that would have the most enormous consequences.”.
The Ministry of Justice said last night: “The Justice Secretary was not previously aware of this matter.
We will consider what further steps are needed once we have more information.”