SUSSEX Police is facing questions over its use of a law designed to tackle serious crime to investigate an inspector suspected of divulging police information to outsiders including journalists.

The force’s use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to investigate Lee Lyons was revealed as it emerged he is appealing his sacking for misconduct.

The inspector, 40, was sacked last month after he was found to have divulged the information, was abusive to other officers, and contacted prostitutes while on duty.

But the latter behaviour was only uncovered after the force used RIPA to trawl through Mr Lyons’ personal telephone while investigating how basic information had become known to a reporter.

The information included that six travellers had been arrested over a fight; that a taxi driver had been robbed; that a police base was closing and that officers had been suspended.

Campaigners question whether it was right for Sussex Police to use that law in effect to identify a reporter’s source, and whether it was an overblown crack-down over the flow of what was basic crime information.

When asked during an interview on the BBC Sussex Breakfast radio programme with Neil Pringle whether the information should have been disclosed to the press and public anyway, deputy chief constable Olivia Pinkney said: “It isn’t about hiding that information but it is about making sure that it is given out at the right time."

Dominic Ponsford, a journalist who successfully lobbied for changes to RIPA, said: “Sussex Police clearly saw the fact that Lee Lyons had unauthorised contact with journalists as a serious criminal matter worthy of using legislation which was intended to be used against terrorists and gangsters to obtain his telecoms records.

“The force claimed that Lyons had improper relationships with journalists, but in the past such contact would have merely been seen as healthy contact between professionals seeking to keep the public informed."

Mr Ponsford is the editor of the website Press Gazette, which uncovered Sussex's use of RIPA in the Lyons case, and led the campaign for RIPA changes.

He stressed the confidentiality of journalists’ sources was a “bedrock of democracy and society”, ensuring that "whistle-blowers are protected and our public bodies are held to account".

Investigators from the anti-corruption unit passed their findings on Mr Lyons to prosecutors, who decided not to bring criminal charges. There is no suggestion Mr Lyons had been paid for the information.

Graham Cox, a retired detective chief superintendent with Sussex Police, said Mr Lyons may have been able to argue some of the information disclosed, taken individually, was in the public interest.

He added he was “uncomfortable” with the force’s use of RIPA for an internal disciplinary investigation.

Mr Cox said: “I do question the proportionality of that. I don’t think that is what the act was brought in for.

“It was brought in to regulate the investigation of serious crime – whatever you might feel about Lee Lyons’ conduct, I am not sure any of it amounted to serious crime.

“If you were being investigated for misconduct in your workplace, your employers would not be able to use the resources of the police to do it. I think there has been a quite a lot of mission creep with RIPA over the years.”

He added its use made officers “scared” to talk to the press, which would ultimately be bad for police and the public.

Matt Webb, chair of the Sussex branch of the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file-officers, said he was comfortable with the way Mr Lyons’ case had been handled.

He said it had started as a criminal investigation and some of Mr Lyons disclosures had caused operational problems that needed to be investigated.

Last year it was revealed that police investigating the Chris Huhne speeding points scandal secretly obtained the phone records of a journalist and one of his sources for the story, even though a judge had agreed that the source could remain confidential.

Detectives sidestepped a judge’s agreement to protect the source for a national newspaper's stories exposing how Huhne illegally conspired to have his speeding points put on to his former wife Vicky’s Pryce's licence.

Instead they used powers under RIPA to identify the source.


IT STARTED with a routine request from a journalist to police: clarification on some information received. 

Reporters contact the force via official channels almost every day to check information raised by any number of sources, often simply members of the public. 

Yet in this case the information was considered sensitive enough for Olivia Pinkney, the deputy chief constable, to order the anti-corruption unit to root out the source of the “leak”. 

Roads led back to Lee Lyons, and the force used a law designed to help authorities spy on people suspected of serious crime such a terrorism to examine his personal phone. 

Investigators found perhaps more than they had expected: The 40-year-old also spent time while on duty contacting prostitute to arrange to meet them after his shift. 

He was suspended on October 2, 2014, and in December he did not contest the charges at the first Sussex Police disciplinary hearing to be held in public.

Despite some of his behaviour being indefensible – it’s hard to make a case for spending time on duty contacting prostitutes – the case also raises questions for his bosses. 

Chief is the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), the 2000 law designed to regulate the way authorities use surveillance to prevent crime. 

Using RIPA to look at his phone in an investigation over leaked information could be seen to amount to using the act to find a journalist’s source. 

This practice has drawn serious concern elsewhere, and in March the law was changed so that any request for communications data to identify a journalist’s source has to go through a court. 

That is to protect the widely accepted principle that journalists should be allowed to keep sources confidential, so as not to discourage whistleblowing. 

The second question raised is about whether the issue here began primarily with Sussex Police’s apparent overwhelming desire to control what information is given to the public and when.

Much of the information disclosed by Mr Lyons was of the routine sort the public arguably has a right to know: a taxi driver being robbed; arrests made following a fight; and police officer suspensions and a dismissal.

This week in Scotland, police chiefs admitted they wanted to bypass journalists and release information through social media channels as a way of avoiding “routinely negative” and “combative” press coverage and have subsequently been criticised for the comments.

Sussex Police said it could not comment on the authorisation in Mr Lyons’ case because he is appealing, but normally it would need to be given at superintendent level or above.

Dominic Ponsford, who led the campaign for the changes to RIPA, said he thought if the RIPA application in Mr Lyons’ case was made today, it would fall under the new rules requiring a court’s approval. 

He added: “I would hope that in future in cases such as this, where the disclosures by the officer were of a pretty trivial nature, the judge would refuse the application because of the overriding public interest in protecting journalistic sources under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Graham Cox, a retired chief superintendent with the force, said that, taken individually, telling a reporter about a robbery would not warrant formal investigation, and that cracking down on the flow of information had consequences. 

“I have always felt that it is in both the police’s and the public’s interests to be as open as you can with the media,” he said, “and it is the media’s job to hold the police and other public services to account.”

But, he added, it was common for investigators to find every possible piece of wrongdoing in order to build up a misconduct case, which may have been at play in Mr Lyons’ case. 

That’s not to say all the information was routine: Mr Lyons also passed on details that caused “operational issues”, according to Matt Webb from the Sussex Police Federation, and needed to be investigated.” 

Deputy chief constable Ms Pinkney told The Argus that Mr Lyons’ disclosures had created “extra pain” for victims and damaged the public’s faith that they can “entrust their information to us”. 

“The public have a right to trust their police – they have a right when they tell us something to know that we will hold that carefully,” she said.

She argued that the force’s disclosures about Mr Lyons, whose misconduct hearing was held in public due to new government rules, was a sign of its transparency. 

Mr Cox also questions the use of RIPA for internal investigation, warning of “mission creep” in the use of the law. 

“If an officer is suspected of being corrupt or working with an organised crime group or something like that it would be appropriate to use RIPA against them, he said. 

“But I am not sure about the use of it for failing to do your job properly or things that don’t amount to a criminal offence.” 

He added he did not dispute the decision to sack him, given his contact with prostitutes while on duty. 

With Mr Lyons appealing his dismissal, it remains to be seen whether any of these issues will be looked at further.