In whistleblowing cases, defining what is and is not a protected disclosure is a multi-faceted process. That was certainly so in a case concerning a senior coroner’s officer who was utterly convinced that she was on the trail of a serial killer.
The woman, a civilian working for a police force at a comparable grade to that of a detective chief inspector, was, with the support of her employer, working towards a PhD and was given access to historic coroner’s officer files to assist her in her studies. She was, however, warned to be mindful as to how she used them.
She reviewed two cases in which murder-suicide verdicts were returned – a male was found to have killed a female and then himself. She formed the view that the verdicts were unsafe and that the incidents might be unsolved double murders. She believed that similarities between them indicated the hand of a serial killer.
She disclosed a report on her findings to a senior serving police officer on the force who, after considering its contents, took the view that there was nothing to justify reinvestigating the incidents. She also disclosed reports to an external forensic expert, a retired senior coroner’s officer and two retired senior police officers. In some instances, the disclosures included forensic photographs.
After she lodged a complaint that she had been subjected to detrimental treatment for making public interest disclosures, an Employment Tribunal (ET) considered as a preliminary issue the question of whether the disclosures qualified for protection under whistleblowing legislation.
Ruling on the matter, the ET found that she reasonably and genuinely believed that the information contained in the reports was true and tended to show that the inquest verdicts were unsafe, that a miscarriage of justice had occurred and that criminal offences had been committed. She acted through utter conviction that she had detected double murders and she reasonably believed that she was making the disclosures in the public interest.
The ET acknowledged that her motive in making the disclosures was to expose what she believed to be the truth. The disclosure to the serving officer qualified for whistleblowing protection. However, the ET ruled that other disclosures to individuals who were external to the force did not so qualify in that they were not, in all the circumstances, made reasonably.
The ET noted that, in one instance, she could have anonymised the photographs and refrained from sharing the identity of the victims, but did not do so. In others, she provided information about a named individual, identifying him as having previously been a suspect. It was, in particular, unreasonable to disclose extremely sensitive and newsworthy content, including photographs of the deceased, to one of the retired officers who she was aware had media connections.