A senior policy officer at HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) who made a “full and frank apology” has avoided prosecution for contempt after breaching the embargo on a High Court judgment.
The official announced the “favourable” result before the judgment was handed down.
Mr Justice Dove said that without the “comprehensive nature of the advice and guidance provided by the Government Legal Department (GLD) and their very prompt action”, together with the apology, the outcome “may have been very different and particularly serious for the individual concerned”.
Dove J referred to the warning issued last year by the Master of the Rolls, Sir Geoffrey Vos in Counsel General v BEIS, that those who break embargoes could expect to find themselves facing contempt proceedings.
Describing the breach by HMRC as “significant”, Dove J said: “The requirements of the embargo are mandatory and strict. A breach of the kind which occurred in the present case is a breach which can lead to the prosecution of proceedings for contempt of court.”
The case involved a judicial review brought by the World Uyghur Congress and Global Legal Action, claiming that the home secretary, HMRC and National Crime Agency (NCA) had unlawfully failed to investigate the import of cotton products from Xinjiang, much of which was manufactured by forced labour. Dove J dismissed the judicial review in January.
The High Court heard that the draft judgment on the judicial review was circulated to counsel and solicitors subject to the “standard embargo” on publication, which referred to the Counsel General case.
The GLD, representing the Home Office, HMRC and NCA, told the High Court on 19 January, the day before the ruling was handed down, that there had been a breach of the embargo.
It had circulated the draft judgment to “a limited number of individuals” at the defendant organisations at 9.49am on 18 January, together with a warning on the consequences of a breach.
But the result of the case, though not the draft judgment, was shared “more widely than permitted” – the GLD became aware of this when the Department of International Trade asked about it.
By the end of the day, the GLD had tracked down the culprit at HMRC, who had emailed officials at the Home Office, the Department for International Trade, the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Office that the draft judgment had been received and the result was “favourable” to the defendants.
The GLD informed the court the following morning. In a witness statement requested by the judge, the HMRC policy officer said he was acting under a “mistaken assumption as to the nature of embargo judgments generally”, apologised for not reading the instructions sent by the GLD, and said he was “very sorry” that he had not confirmed the position before sending his email.
Dove J said he was “entirely satisfied” that the GLD took “all reasonable steps” to ensure that the embargo was properly communicated and explained.
“Far from the breach arising from some form of systemic failure or error on behalf of the lawyers instructed it appears to me that, on the contrary, sensible and robust advice and guidance was provided in this instance.”
The judge said that what happened “arose as a consequence of the failure of a single individual” to read instructions.
Had not it been for the advice provided by the GLD and its prompt action on becoming aware of the breach, together with the “full and frank apology by the individual guilty of breaching the embargo”, the outcome in this case “may have been very different and particularly serious for the individual concerned”.