Scotland Yard will finally have to answer claims that for five years it deliberately played down the scale of the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World, after Lord Prescott won the right to challenge police in the High Court over their failure to inform him and others that they were potential victims of voicemail interception.
The former deputy prime minister and three others – the Labour MP Chris Bryant, the former Scotland Yard deputy assistant commissioner Brian Paddick and the journalist Brendan Montague – were given permission for a judicial review into the handling of their cases by police following the seizure of 10,000 pages of evidence from the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire.
The proceedings, expected to take place later this year, will shine a spotlight on the Yard's heavily criticised investigation in 2005-2006. It was led by the former assistant commissioner Andy Hayman, the head of counter-terrorism at the Metropolitan Police at the time and now a columnist for Rupert Murdoch's News International.
The subsequent review of that investigation by the Assistant Commissioner John Yates in 2009, who found that police had correctly limited their inquiries to a "handful" of victims, will also be scrutinised as part of the assertion by Lord Prescott and his co-claimants that their human rights were infringed because police failed to tell them until earlier this year that they were targeted.
Lawyers for the four men claim the Yard's handling of the phone-hacking investigations shielded News International from "massive embarrassment and expense" by failing to disclose the full scale of the voicemail eavesdropping – and that police misled Parliament and the public over their response to alleged law-breaking.
Mr Bryant said: "We already know that the original investigation got nowhere near revealing the full degree of criminality at the NOTW, but one of the great mysteries is why the Metropolitan Police decided to limit their investigation and refused or failed to tell all the potential victims."
Lord Prescott added: "I look forward to receiving full and proper explanations as the case progresses." Yesterday's ruling at the High Court in London represents a significant victory for the peer and his fellow claimants, after a judge in February turned down the judicial review request.
Reversing that judgment yesterday, Mr Justice Foskett said it was now clear police had failed to provide a complete picture of the facts and that the case of the four men was "arguable".
The Yard, which in January launched Operation Weeting – its third phone-hacking investigation – with a promise that it would "leave no stone unturned", has been dogged by allegations that a close relationship between senior officers and executives at News International hampered its original inquiry. The claims have been strongly denied.
The claimants in the judicial review are seeking declarations from the High Court that police failed to inform them they were likely victims of hacking, as well as falling short in responding to requests for information and conducting an effective investigation in 2006. Both Lord Prescott and Mr Bryant were repeatedly told by the Yard that there was no evidence from the documents gathered by Mr Mulcaire that they were victims of hacking.
It subsequently emerged that police were in possession of an email sent by Mr Mulcaire in April 2006 to a NOTW executive referring to 45 messages left by him on the voicemail of Lord Prescott's chief of staff, Joan Hammell. Mr Bryant has recently seen a list compiled by the private detective of 23 numbers which dialled his phone and could only have been obtained from hacking.
Mr Paddick, who was initially told that Mr Mulcaire had only noted his name, rank and address, has now learned that phone details had been collected for him, his partner and his former partner.
Scotland Yard declined to comment on the court ruling. Both Mr Hayman and Mr Yates have consistently denied any wrongdoing.
The questions the Met must answer
Why weren't more victims told by the 2006 investigation?
Claimants argue Scotland Yard deliberately downplayed the scale of the scandal, raising questions about the integrity of its investigation. Police point out they secured two convictions.
Why did police fail to disclose information held in the Mulcaire files?
Individuals such as Chris Bryant were told they were not hacked because the investigator's chaotic notebooks were not fully computerised until this year. This raises the question of why victims like Lord Prescott, mentioned in a Mulcaire email, were not contacted.
Was Andy Hayman right to limit the original investigation?
The Yard's counter-terrorism head had to juggle Islamist plots with phone hacking. He insists all avenues of inquiry were followed. But he faces questions about why his investigators only interviewed one NOTW journalist, Clive Goodman.
Why did John Yates give the first investigation a clean bill of health?
The small number of victims – "10 to 12" – was due to an interpretation of the law which stated police had to prove intercepted messages were "unopened".