Daniel Morgan inquiry: panel poleaxed by row over police files

Retired judge sparked damaging clash with offer to vet Met documents on murder case

By David Hencke | 20 January 2015

“The panel was behaving like a lot of Sherlock Holmes’s, and wanted to reinvestigate the murder rather than research the documents” – Graham Smith, former member of inquiry panel

Members of the panel for the independent inquiry into the murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan have been dogged by a fractious dispute.

Exaro can reveal that a retired judge, Sir Stanley Burnton, resigned from chairing the panel following a furious row over how to respond to a series of objections by the Metropolitan Police Service to handing over internal files on the case to the inquiry.

He ran into a damaging dispute over the issue with another panel member, Graham Smith, an academic at the university of Manchester’s school of law, who specialises in police accountability.

Smith accused Burnton, a former judge in the Court of Appeal, of seeking to vet what police material should be disclosed to the panel.

The retired judge told Exaro: “There were of course negotiations with the Met, which I did not conduct, as to how ultra-sensitive information was to be dealt with.

“A possibility was to emulate the manner in which claims for public-interest privilege are dealt with in litigation, when disputes as to relevance and disclosure are determined by the judge.”

“I would not regard the refusal of the other members of the panel to agree to such a machinery as a resignation issue.”

His comments back Smith’s claim that the retired judge tended to want to run the panel inquiry like a court. This is different from leading a panel, diminishing the role of its members. Exaro understands that Burnton at one stage sought advice from the former bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, who chaired what is widely regarded as the successful panel inquiry into Hillsborough, the football disaster of 1989.

Alastair Morgan, brother of the late PI, last month accused the Met of using “every opportunity to obstruct and delay” the independent panel that was set up in 2013 by Theresa May, home secretary, to investigate police corruption that allegedly lies behind the murder.

Despite five police investigations into the case, nobody has been convicted for Daniel Morgan’s murder. The co-founder of a private-detective agency, Southern Investigations, he was found with an axe in his head in 1987 in the car park of a pub in south London.

The Met has admitted that police corruption was a “debilitating factor” in the original investigation. Senior Met figures are terrified about what could come out in the inquiry.

Some 16 months after the first request for the police files, and as Exaro investigated the delay, the Met handed over more than 50 crates of evidence. But wrangling continues over up to a million relevant documents.

When Burnton resigned from chairing the panel over a year ago, he cited “personal reasons”.

He told Exaro: “I do not think it appropriate to enlarge on the reasons that I decided to resign.”

Smith also later quit the panel after a second dispute with other members over how their approach to the inquiry.

He claimed: “The panel was behaving like a lot of Sherlock Holmes’s, and wanted to reinvestigate the murder rather than research the documents. It is no wonder that the Metropolitan police may not have wanted to hand them over.”

He said that it was “like working for a judicial inquiry without the safeguards of being held in public”.

Smith submitted a highly critical memo to May, detailing his concerns about the inquiry.

The former judge also submitted a report to the lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, telling Exaro: “I, of course, have views about the panel inquiry procedure generally, resulting from my experience.”

Following Burnton’s resignation, May appointed Baroness O’Loan, Northern Ireland’s first police ombudsman from 2000 to 2007, to chair the panel.

The inquiry is also to address connections between police officers, private investigators and journalists at the News of the World, the tabloid newspaper that closed in 2011 because of the phone-hacking scandal, and other media involved in the case.

But in a further sign of delay, the inquiry is yet to ask for any documents from News International, since rebranded as News UK, which was the News of the World’s publisher.

The Met said that it was only able to pass documents to the panel after negotiating a protocol for disclosure to safeguard the handling of the material.

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