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Stanford and co-defendant George Liddell pleaded guilty to conspiring to intercept emails sent to Redbus chairman John Porter during a boardroom battle at the hosting firm back in 2003. Stanford argued the judge had misunderstood the law, but was later denied leave to appeal.

Experienced IT lawyer Dai Davis, of solicitors Brooke North, said the law in this area involves a complex mix of legislation including the Data Protection Act, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the Human Rights Act, as well as common law.

Davis explained that Abrams' situation most closely parallels a June 1997 case involving a senior police officer whose telephone calls from work were intercepted at a time when she was in dispute with her employers (Merseyside Police) over alleged sexual discrimination.  The European Court of Human Rights ruled against the UK government in that case (Halford v United Kingdom, 1997).

"The case was brought under the EU Human Rights legislation before we had a Human Rights Act in the UK," he explained. "It now forms part of the 'common law' as well as, in effect, being a precedent under the later Human Rights Act."

The case raises serious concerns about the willingness of a local council to authorise wiretapping on controversial grounds months after ministers acted to clip the wings of local authorities.

The number of local officials who can authorise surveillance operations was reduced last November. The decision by the Home Office to tighten regulations followed controversy over the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) by local authorities to investigate trivial offences such as littering and putting bins out on the wrong day.

In a statement Lambeth Council explained its email monitoring policies.

"We fully embrace the practice of openness and transparency in local government, however both officers and councillors are prohibited from disclosing without appropriate authority confidential information to third parties, and this is reinforced in the council's protocol governing the use of IT. That is why we - as is standard practice amongst both the public and private sector in complying with the government's information Security Standards - have an ICT protocol restricting what can and cannot be sent to third parties. This protocol applies to both staff and members and is expressly referred to when logging on to the Council's system to avoid any ambiguity.

"Where we suspect any non compliance by any officer or member there is an unqualified right to investigate the use of the council's IT systems which is sanctioned by the council's internal audit team," it added. ®

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