Chief constable cleared of contempt after he returns hard drives containing evidence of suspected child abuse
* Sandra Laville, crime correspondent
* guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 16 June 2009 17.52 BST
A chief constable was criticised by three judges today for defying a high court order to return computer hard drives containing evidence of suspected child abuse to an expert witness.
Colin Port, the chief constable of Avon and Somerset police, escaped a prison term for contempt of court because he returned the files from 87 computer hard drives to the expert yesterday evening, hours before the officer appeared at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.
Although they dismissed the contempt of court action against him the three senior judges said Port’s actions in defying the order ‘gave grounds for concern’.
The case pitted the chief constable against Jim Bates, a forensic computer analyst, who since the 1990s has been used by police and defence lawyers in paedophile cases.
Bates said the contents of the computer hard drives and hundreds of photographs which were seized were all related to his work as an expert witness.
He claims that Port and other senior police officers involved in child protection are engaged in a campaign to discredit him because he continues to expose serious flaws in Operation Ore, Britain’s biggest online paedophile investigation.
Last year Bates was found guilty of falsifying his qualifications by saying he held a bachelor of science degree when he did not.
‘I have been subjected to intimidation, bullying and even threats of violence by police and some of their misguided supporters,’ Bates said in court documents.
But as he escaped prisontoday Port was defiant. Outside the court he called upon Bates to destroy all the material which had been returned and said the case raised concerns about who was allowed access to highly sensitive material.
‘Each time these images are viewed it is a fresh victimisation of the child,’ he said. ‘Tighter governance is crucial. We need a nationwide accreditation system with clear rules and safeguarding of victims and a fail-safe that allows accreditation to be withdrawn should any aspect of those rules be breached.’
Bates, who has been credited as a world-renowned expert in forensic computer analysis, became the focus of a police inquiry last year when he acted in the case of a Bristol man accused of possessing paedophile images.
He was arrested last September on suspicion of conspiracy to possess indecent images of children. His home was searched and 87 computer hard drives and several hundred photographs of children were seized.
The police claimed Bates had 2,500 photographs of children in his possession. He disputes that, saying there were only about 250 pictures, all relating to historic cases which the police had knowledge of.
Bates challenged the search and seizure at a judicial review and said the material was legally restricted, professionally confidential and required for his work as a defence expert.
In May the high court ruled in his favour saying the search was unlawful and ordered Port to return the material.
But Port refused, saying that the public would not understand a police officer handing back images of suspected child abuse during an investigation.
Bates, who is acting in two forthcoming appeals against conviction in the Ore investigation, has suggested that 85% of the convictions are unsafe because of ‘massive evidence of credit card fraud’.
Operation Ore was launched in 2002 after the credit card details of 7,200 people believed to have paid for paedophile images on the internet were supplied to the British police by US investigators.
More than 2,000 individuals have been convicted as part of the inquiry. Police suspected those on the list of having paid for access to images of children being abused through a website called Landslide, which provided access to 300 adult sites.
But Bates and others say the inquiry was seriously flawed, and said many people on the list were victims of credit card fraud. In the United States only a small proportion of those on the list were convicted.
In his affidavit Bates said: ‘My investigation revealed … massive evidence of credit card fraud within the database (Landslide) and conclusive evidence of breathtaking incompetence in the prosecution’s expert analyses of how this database had been generated and maintained.’
Senior officers involved in Ore are also facing a class action from former suspects who claim their lives have been ruined as a result of a flawed investigation.
In their judgment Lord Justice Stanley Burnton, Mr Justice Wilkie and Mr Justice Calvert Smith criticised Port for attempting to smear Bates in a series of newspaper articles ‘all of which were directed to bring Bates into disrepute as a result of suggestions that there was salacious material which he had on computers otherwise than for purely professional purposes’.
They refused to grant Port’s legal team costs. Bates said he would be pursuing a case for damages against the force and Port.