Government loses High Court challenge over Boris Johnson's WhatsApp messages

Judges rule ex-PM's messages likely to contain information relevant to Covid-19 inquiry

The government argued that many of Boris Johnson's messages and notes were irrelevant to the inquiry. PA
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The UK government has lost a High Court bid to prevent the Covid-19 inquiry from seeing Boris Johnson’s diaries and WhatsApp messages in full.

The Cabinet Office had launched a legal challenge to a request from the inquiry chairwoman for unredacted messages from the former prime minister.

The government argued that many of the notes were “unambiguously irrelevant” to the case and included details of ministers' and officials' private lives.

In a ruling on Thursday, Lord Justice Dingemans and Mr Justice Garnham dismissed the claim for a judicial review but said the Cabinet Office could make a different application to Lady Hallett, the public inquiry's chairwoman.

The judges said: “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 government has said it will “comply fully” with the High Court judgment.

A government representative said the inquiry “is an important step to learn lessons from the pandemic and the government is co-operating in the spirit of candour and transparency”.

“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 representative added.

“We will comply fully with this judgment and will now work with the inquiry team on the practical arrangements.”

People who lost family members and friends to Covid vowed to push for “justice and accountability” when the independent inquiry into the UK government’s handling of the pandemic opened last month.

Lady Hallett requested a vast trove of documents, including 24 notebooks kept by Mr Johnson.

She said she wanted the “entire contents” of the papers, but the Cabinet Office argued this was unnecessary.

At a hearing last month, lawyers for the department argued the probe 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 Lady Hallett, said the idea that the Cabinet Office could decide which aspects were relevant “would emasculate this and future inquiries”.

Lord David Pannick KC, on behalf of Mr Johnson, argued there was a “real danger” of undermining public confidence in the process if the department won its bid to keep certain correspondence private.

Following days of public wrangling with the inquiry, the Cabinet Office took the highly unusual step of launching the legal action in June.

Mr Johnson was last month warned that public funding for his legal team will be withdrawn if he tries to “undermine” Rishi Sunak's administration during the inquiry.

Updated: August 03, 2023, 12:59 PM