Misconduct in public office – Prison officer caught out

The case of R v Robert Norman recently looked at the issue of misconduct in public office.

A prison officer had worked in a High Security Prison and, over five years, had fed information to a journalist about inmates and general prison issues for just over £10,000. Following a police inquiry into the journalist’s payments to public officials, the journalist voluntarily disclosed information that identified the prison officer.

The officer was subsequently convicted of misconduct in public office and sought to appeal the decision, on the basis that the police had placed undue pressure on the journalist and that the officer was entitled to anonymity as a source. Further, he argued that this should not be a criminal matter but a disciplinary one.

The court found that there was no undue pressure from the police. The newspapers were large enough that it would have its own legal advice. The fact that the information was received from a suspect did not change the position. The police were entitled to assume that the disclosure was following advice and so was an informed decision.

The officer’s right to anonymity under Article 10 European Convention on Human Rights was an unqualified right. Further, under Article 11 of the ECHR his communications fell within criminal conduct and so he was not entitled to confidentiality.

As to whether the matter was a disciplinary matter or criminal matter, the court held that the jury were open to conclude whether or not the public interest had been harmed. In this case, the jury decided that the disclosures had undermined trust and morale within the prison service.

Comment

This case highlights the importance of ensuring staff understand the need for confidentiality, especially when working with vulnerable individuals, whether high profile or not. They have a right to ensure that their information is not disclosed and, in particular, not disclosed to the newspapers. Further, it highlights the fact that where such disclosures are made and subsequently come to light, individuals are likely to face criminal investigations, as well as internal HR investigations. It is important that staff within organisations are mindful of confidentiality issues and ensure they are aware of and follow organisational policies and processes.

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