Court Hears that Tens of Millions of Emails Deleted – After NGN Were Allegedly Put On Notice TWICE
· Pre-Trial Review in Sun ‘hacking’ case kicks-off
· Heat turned-up on Murdochs, ahead of Fox-Sky bid decision
· Jon Chapman was News International’s Top Lawyer During the Phone Hacking Scandal
· Chapman allegedly ‘pressed the button’ that deleted millions of emails at the height of the phone hacking affair
· Even Back-Up tapes were ‘scratched’ clean in January 2011, High Court hears
· Then there was an alleged ‘targeted purge’ to make sure that the emails of key bosses such as Rebekah Brooks were erased – despite being told by Operation Weeting police to preserve evidence
· Sienna Miller’s lawyers also told Murdoch bosses to keep emails
· Jon Chapman allegedly broke the law by pressing on with deletions in the face of TWO legal warnings from important parties
By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
ONE OF Rupert Murdoch’s former top lawyers has been accused of an alleged criminal cover-up in the phone hacking scandal.
The claims were made in the latest hearing at the High Court, in which alleged victims of phone hacking – allegedly carried out by The Sun – are preparing to go to trial.
The court heard that Jon Chapman allegedly authorised the deletion of millions of emails on the News Group Newspapers’ server.
At the same time, the Head of Legal Services was giving advice on legal issues around an “email deletion” policy.
News Group Newspapers (NGN), the holding company that owns The Sun, have not admitted to any illegality taking place at The Sun or that any documents were destroyed as part of a cover-up.
The claimants have brought the case because they say that their phones were hacked by Sun reporters, and by journalists at the Features Desk of the News of the World.
NGN have only admitted News of The World News Desk hacking, and limited Features Desk hacking.
The claimants also allege that the hacking was followed by an organised cover-up.
Evidence in the case also alleges that their medical records were ‘blagged’ by private investigators, working for the Sun, when Rebekah Brooks was the Editor.
Lawyers acting for the claimants say that some of emails deleted contained incriminating information about phone hacking and medical record blagging, which would help their claimants’ case.
In a legal document, the counsel for the claimants David Sherborne, wrote: ‘Even if Mr Chapman was acting in a lawyer-client relationship (which is denied), he was advising the Defendant (News Group Newspapers) on how to perform an illegal act, namely on how to delete potentially relevant evidence while proceedings had already been commenced…’
The judge hearing the case, Justice Mann, said he didn’t know whether the act of not preserving documents was ‘sufficiently illegal.’
The illegality, if any, may be explored at a future hearing, or even the full-blown trial, scheduled for next month, in January 2018.
The emails were allegedly deleted in January and February 2011.
The lawyers for the claimants argue that the timing of the deletion is more than suspicious.
The court heard how the electronic clear-out allegedly happened after the police had launched their investigation into phone hacking, called Operation Weeting.
In addition, the film star Sienna Miller had already launched legal proceedings against NGN for hacking her phones.
Destroying evidence, after being put on notice by the police and a civil claimant, is potentially a criminal offence.
Mr Sherborne said that it was also a breach of the Civil Procedure Rules, the laws that govern the conduct of civil cases.
This requires a legal advisor to notify their client of the need to preserve disclosable documents, particularly where document retention policies exist.
Chapman allegedly authorised the mass deletions FIVE months after Sienna Miller requested NGN to confirm that it had preserved all relevant documents and evidence.
Mr Sherborne added: ‘As the Defendant (News Group Newspapers) itself admits, Mr Chapman subsequently gave the instruction to delete millions of emails in January 2011.
‘Crucially, this was after letters of claim had been served in the Sienna Miller claim, after numerous other claims had been served on the Defendant, and at a time when Operation Weeting had just commenced.’
The claimants accused Mr Chapman of hiding behind the special powers granted to solicitors, based around client confidentiality. This is known as legal privilege.
Privilege protects all communications (in this case emails) between a solicitor or barrister (Jon Chapman), and their client (News Group Newspapers) from being disclosed without the permission of the client.
In the hearing at the High Court, the claimants argued that they should be able to see emails that Mr. Chapman had sent around the time of the deletions.
NGN claimed that they did not have to handover the emails about the deletion policy because he was acting as an NGN lawyer, as opposed to a NGN employee.
He claims that his emails contained legal advice to Rebekah Brooks, and other newspaper bosses, and therefore must remain secret.
News Group Newspapers have not admitted wrong-doing in this case and deny phone hacking at the Sun and illegal use of private investigators.
In a legal document, the counsel for the claimants David Sherborne, wrote: ‘It is clear that from the Defendant’s (News Group Newspapers) own case Mr Chapman was not advising on the deletions as a lawyer, but rather implementing the deletions himself.
‘In the circumstances, the Defendant cannot assert legal professional privilege in order to cover up parts of his communications.’
He added: ‘..the Court is not facing a mere allegation of fraud, but a prima facie case of illegality has clearly been established, and therefore the illegality exception prevents any assertion of privilege.’
The counsel for News Group Newspapers, Clare Montgomery QC, said that the claimants were asking for so many documents, that the they could not be provided in time for the scheduled trial.
Montgomery said: ‘We are concerned that in particular some of the areas of disclosure that are being raised threaten the viability of the trial date we have got because of the work that would be required in order to complete the tasks….’
Jon Chapman joined News International as Director of Legal Affairs in 2003.
Before that, he worked at Clifford Chance – coincidentally the company representing his former employers now at the High Court – for a decade.
He left News International in 2011.