The Cabinet Office will have to hand over Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages, notebooks and diaries by Monday afternoon after it lost a High Court challenge against the chairwoman of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.
The department brought legal action over Baroness Heather Hallett’s order to release the documents, arguing it should not have to hand over material that is “unambiguously irrelevant”.
But in a judgment on Thursday, Lord Justice Dingemans and Mr Justice Garnham dismissed the department’s legal bid, finding that the fact an order for material would produce “some irrelevant documents” did not “invalidate” it or mean it “cannot be lawfully exercised”.
Following the ruling, a Government spokesperson said the department “will comply fully with this judgment and will now work with the inquiry team on the practical arrangements”.
The spokesperson continued: “The court’s judgment is a sensible resolution and will mean that the inquiry chair is able to see the information she may deem relevant, but we can work together to have an arrangement that respects the privacy of individuals and ensures completely irrelevant information is returned and not retained.
The new deadline for the Cabinet Office to hand over Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages, notebooks and diaries to the inquiry is 4pm on Monday, a spokesperson for the inquiry said, adding that Lady Hallett was “pleased” the court had upheld her order.
Lord Justice Dingemans and Mr Justice Garnham said in their ruling that Lady Hallett had issued her order requesting documents that “relate to a matter in question at the inquiry”.
They continued: “The diaries and notebooks sought were very likely to contain information about decision making relating to the Covid-19 pandemic and therefore ‘relate to a matter in question at the inquiry’.”
The two judges added: “To answer the practical issue which seems to have divided the Cabinet Office and the chair of the inquiry, the chair of the inquiry may examine the contested documents, and if the chair of the inquiry agrees that they are obviously irrelevant, will return them.”
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats branded the High Court judgment a “humiliating defeat” for the Government.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of “wasting time and taxpayers’ money on doomed legal battles” while Liberal Democrat Cabinet Office spokeswoman Christine Jardine claimed the Prime Minister had wasted public money to “hide the truth”.
Thursday’s judgment was welcomed by Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK after several of its members attended the hearing in London in June.
Deborah Doyle, spokesperson for the group, said: “This judicial review was a desperate waste of time and money. The inquiry needs to get to the facts if the country is to learn lessons that will save lives in the future.
“That means it needs to be able to access all of the evidence, not just what the Cabinet Office wants it to see.”
At a hearing last month, lawyers for the department argued the inquiry does not have the legal power to force ministers to release documents and messages it says cover matters “unconnected to the Government’s handling of Covid”.
However, Hugo Keith KC, for the inquiry chairwoman, said the idea that the Cabinet Office could decide which aspects were relevant “would emasculate this and future inquiries”.
And Lord David Pannick KC, on behalf of the former prime minister, argued there is a “real danger” of undermining public confidence in the process if the department wins its bid.
The Government took the highly unusual step of launching the challenge in June, in a move which attracted criticism after days of public wrangling between the Cabinet Office and Lady Hallett’s probe.
The former prime minister handed over his unredacted WhatsApp messages, diaries and 24 notebooks to the Cabinet Office in late May.
Mr Johnson himself backed Lady Hallett, who rejected the argument that the material was irrelevant in a May ruling, in opposing the legal challenge over the request.
Press Association – Jess Glass and Tom Pilgrim