UK expert weighs in on Lawyer X handling

By Naomi Neilson|13 May 2020
UK expert weighs in on Lawyer X handling

A former senior police officer from the UK has weighed in on the management of criminal barrister Nicola Gobbo by Victoria Police.

Speaking to the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants (RCMPI) – in what could be its last hearing – Sir Jonathan Murphy outlined the UK policies governing human source management, adding that Nicola Gobbo’s handling was “undesirable”.

However, he conceded that there may be potential to use an informer with confidentiality privileges: “The necessity, justification and proportionality of considerations would help in coming to the conclusion of whether it was desirable or otherwise.”

One of the terms of reference as part of the royal commission is to report on effectiveness of current practices and safeguards, as it relates to legal human sources. The experience of the UK “is some assistance in these inquiries”, an RCMPI counsel confirmed.

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Sir Jon, who worked in the equivalent position of chief commissioner here in Australia – and is now professor of Advanced Policing Studies in Liverpool – outlined legislation that governs the management of human informants in the UK. The act balances the “seriousness of the criminal activity” with the detail of personal information obtained.

The legislation came into effect under the European Conventions focus on human rights. Under the act, the secretary of state can make orders and publish codes of practice, that then form the decision-making of dedicated officers handling police informants.

Commissioner Margaret McMurdo asked Sir Jon to clarify if, under the legislation, officers can consult a legal professional. He said there was “always the option” to do so, and that decisions relating to human sources will often involve “some form of discussion with both in-house lawyers and, from time to time, the Crown prosecution service”.

“I’ve never been involved in a set of circumstances such as given rise to the commission, but what I want to say is, if I felt the need to go through internal advice, I would in relation to the registration of a source,” Sir Jon said. “You don’t want that circle of knowledge to be too wide, but at the same time you need to have proper advice for effective decisions.”

One of his strongest opinions, as it also relates to Victoria’s policy of decision-making, is in not relying on a committee to determine appropriateness of a source. He said the police force trains people for roles and promotes them on the basis of experience, skills and their judgement: “You make a decision, you record your decision [and then] you justify.”

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He also pointed to the importance of a dedicated source unit, that has only one role rather than multiple roles across the organisation: “The authorisation of human sources requires people to be on the ball, and on top of their game. Any distraction doing other roles is at the detriment of their [human source management] job.”

As for culture, which was a point of contention for Victoria Police during the commission, Sir Jon said it is unhealthy for individuals to not consult their seniors and that, for someone to do wrong by the organisation, it starts at the culture.

“If one looks at instances such as you describe where things have gone badly wrong and organisation reputations have been tarnished, they are very rarely because of processes in place,” Sir Jon said. “It is because of the individual working outside of that process.”

UK expert weighs in on Lawyer X handling
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