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March hearing of McGrail Inquiry delayed as investigation continues into alleged data breach

Photo by Johnny Bugeja

• Senior investigating officer from the Police Service of Northern Ireland will lead criminal investigation.

The Royal Gibraltar Police investigation into an alleged data breach affecting documents of the McGrail Inquiry will be led by a senior investigating officer from the Police Service of Northern Ireland [PSNI] following a request by Commissioner Richard Ullger for mutual assistance from the UK.

The RGP confirmed the development as the McGrail Inquiry announced that the full hearing scheduled for March 2023 would be delayed due to the impact of the alleged data breach and the ensuing investigation.

In a statement issued through its lawyers Attias & Levy on Thursday, the Inquiry said a new date for the full hearing has yet to be set but would be announced before its next procedural session on February 8, 2023.

The alleged data breach, first revealed in November, led to the arrest by the RGP of two people on suspicion of computer misuse and data protection offences.

The RGP investigation is ongoing and the two people arrested remain on police bail.

Police Commissioner Richard Ullger said earlier this month he had reached out to the UK’s National Police Coordination Centre to seek Mutual Aid from UK policing “in the interests of transparency and independence”.

“The criminal investigation into the alleged data breach is continuing,” a spokesperson for the RGP told the Chronicle.

“As a result of our request to the UK’s National Police Coordination Centre for Mutual Aid, a senior investigating officer from the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been briefed and provided with all the necessary documents in order that he can lead the investigation.”

Separately the Inquiry commissioned a report by an expert IT forensics/cybersecurity firm into the nature and extent of the breach.

“The situation continues to be treated with the utmost seriousness and urgency,” the Inquiry said in the statement on Thursday.

“The investigation is ongoing, but the Inquiry hopes to provide a detailed update on the investigation when it is completed in the new year.”

“Since discovering the suspected breach, the Inquiry’s focus has been on ascertaining the nature and extent of, and responding to, the suspected breach.”

“However, we have now had an opportunity to consider the viability of the existing Inquiry timetable, which was already very tight and ambitious.”

“Responding to the suspected data breach took up nearly all of the Inquiry team’s time and resources during November and December, and substantive work has not yet resumed.”

“The Inquiry has also had to inform several witnesses that it cannot accept disclosure at present, meaning that disclosure from several witnesses has not yet been received.”

“Given that the Inquiry team had intended to dedicate all of November and December on the disclosure process, the Inquiry is not in a position to give disclosure to Core Participants by the 21 December 2022 deadline.”

“This, in turn, means that various other deadlines will also have to be extended.”

“Regrettably, it will therefore no longer be possible to hold the main Inquiry hearing in March 2023.”

“The [Inquiry] Commissioner is now exploring all alternative options for a replacement date for the main Inquiry hearing, and has requested diary availability from the Core Participants.”

“This date will be announced as soon as possible, and in any event before the Third Preliminary Hearing, which will proceed as scheduled on 8 February 2023.”

The Inquiry previously stated it had received information on November 16 about a “likely data breach” affecting its documents and had “immediately” reported the matter to the RGP and the Gibraltar Regulatory Authority.

It said it was cooperating with both the RGP and the GRA.

The Inquiry is headed by Sir Peter Openshaw, a retired UK High Court judge of the Queen’s Bench Division in England and Wales.

Under the terms of his Commission, the retired judge has “absolute discretion” to probe as he sees appropriate the reasons and circumstances leading to former police Commissioner Ian McGrail’s early retirement in June 2020, after a 36-year career and halfway through his term in the top post at the Royal Gibraltar Police.

The Inquiry has already held two preliminary sessions in public, centred primarily on procedural matters including policies and protocols for the handling of documentation and its approach to privacy and data protection issues.

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