News International sanctioned the use of private detectives as recently as six months ago to conduct surveillance and compile dossiers on the private lives of three lawyers who are leading damages claims against the News of the World for illegal phone hacking.
One of the lawyers, Mark Lewis, whose clients include the family of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, told The Independent that the use of private detectives against him "crossed a new line" and threatened his ability to do his job. The reports gathered on the lawyers include claims about their personal lives, political beliefs and health.
The dossiers were submitted to senior executives at Rupert Murdoch's newspaper group at a time when it was still seeking to limit the hacking scandal by insisting voicemail interception was restricted to a single "rogue" reporter. The Law Society described the allegations as "another low point" in the hacking scandal and said it had written to the Leveson inquiry asking for the issue to be explored in the course of its investigations into illegal newsgathering. The Independent understands that Tom Crone, the NOTW's former chief lawyer, will be asked by MPs on Tuesday who at News International (NI) was responsible for sanctioning the snooping operation against the lawyers, who include Charlotte Harris and Mark Thomson. He will be questioned by the House of Commons' Media Select Committee.
Mr Crone, who was responsible for the first internal NI investigation into the phone-hacking affair and later told MPs that the practice was limited to the disgraced royal editor Clive Goodman, was dismissed by the company days after the closure of the 168-year-old Sunday title was announced in July.
The Met's Operation Weeting, which is investigating phone hacking by the NOTW, has made 15 arrests this year – the latest that of a 30-year-old man held yesterday.
Mr Lewis is a key figure in the long-running civil legal battle against the NOTW. His clients include the football boss Gordon Taylor, who received £700,000 from NI in 2008 in an out-of-court damages settlement relating to the hacking of his private telephone. Mr Lewis said he believed the dossier on him, which he has seen, was part of an effort to gather material that could be used against him and to put pressure on the lawyers to seek fast-track settlements in the lawsuits against the newspaper. He has passed the information to Scotland Yard, which last night declined to comment on its investigation.
The private investigators are believed to have tracked the three lawyers from December of last year through until April this year. There is no suggestion that the dossiers had any effect on the conduct of the lawyers and their claims.
Mr Lewis said he was unaware of the operation at the time, but details in the reports about the lawyer, including claims about the movements of family members, could only have come from individuals placing them under surveillance. It is not illegal for private investigators to follow an individual in public places as long as the surveillance does not amount to harassment.
The solicitor said: "They were looking for any dirt they could find in my private life. My concern is for my clients. If the effect of the work of the private investigators was that I felt fearful or frightened and I backed off, this would affect how I carried out my job. Lawyers have to be free of fear that their personal lives will be affected if they continue their work."
The dossier is thought to have been compiled as NI sparked the new Scotland Yard investigation into phone hacking by handing internal emails to police in January containing "significant new information" relating to the activities of unnamed NOTW executives and Glenn Mulcaire, the private detective who was used by the paper to conduct its voicemail hacking.
Mr Lewis said the report was riddled with inaccuracies and incorrectly claimed he was suffering from a fatal illness, along with the suggestion that, as a lawyer, he had "a chip on his shoulder".
The revelations were described as "staggering" by the Labour MP Tom Watson, who, after being approached with the information gathered by The Independent, said he would raise the issue when Mr Crone appears before the Media Select Committee.
Mr Watson, a member of the committee and a leading campaigner on the NOTW's activities said: "Here we have an international media company worth billions of dollars in receipt of material from private detectives looking into the private lives of lawyers whose clients are victims and at the centre of a police investigation. It is staggering.
"We will want to ask Mr Crone if he sanctioned the use of these private investigators, whether he read their reports and what was the purpose of these reports."
Led by Ms Harris, the lawyers in the civil cases have been credited with uncovering crucial evidence in the hacking scandal at a time when Scotland Yard had said there were no grounds for a fresh criminal inquiry.
Ms Harris and Mr Thomson, who represents several high-profile hacking claimants including Sienna Miller and Jude Law, declined to comment.
Desmond Hudson, the Law Society's chief executive, said: "To seek to gather information on your opponent's lawyer is intended to coerce that lawyer and gain unfair advantage in the legal process." News International last night declined to comment on the story.
Rich reward for Rupert
*The hacking scandal swirling around News Corp did not discourage the company from awarding the Murdoch family multimillion-dollar bonuses last year.
Rupert Murdoch took home $33m, including a $12.5m bonus, putting his total payments up 47 per cent. His son, James, got a $1.6m pay rise, increasing it to $11.9m, and was also awarded a $6m bonus but later declined it "in light of the current controversy surrounding the News of the World".
The regulatory filing, which set out details of the annual meeting to be held in Los Angeles next month, contained no reference to the hacking scandal.