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COVID inquiry: Government faces criminal proceedings as deadline looms to hand over Boris Johnson’s WhatsApps | Politics News

Criminal proceedings could be taken against the government if they do not hand over unredacted WhatsApp messages sent by Boris Johnson during the COVID inquiry, according to a top barrister.

A deadline of 4pm on Tuesday looms for the Cabinet Office to pass the communications – as well as other documents – to inquiry chair Lady Hallett in an unredacted form after she made an order under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005.

If the Cabinet Office do challenge the order, a legal battle looms between the government and Lady Hallett.

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Adam Wagner, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, told Sky News that if the order is not complied with there are a range of options.

He said: “If the 4pm deadline passes and the government decides it’s not going to comply in full with the ruling by Hallett, then in theory they could be committing a criminal offence under the inquiries act and criminal proceedings could be taken.”

According to the act, anyone convicted of failing to comply with a section 21 order faces a fine of up to £1,000, 51 weeks in prison, or both.

The Cabinet Office itself could be prosecuted as a body corporate.

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But Mr Wagner laid out two other options that could be taken.

“Another option is that the Baroness could refer the matter to the High Courts and the High Court would then make an order deciding what to do next.

“And then a third option is that the government could tell Baroness Hallett they’re going to judicially review her – and they have until early next week to do that as it’s 14 days from the decision that was taken.

“And if they decide to judicially review her, it’s unlikely that any enforcement action will be taken in the meantime.

“But that would be heard, I suspect, pretty quickly by the High Court.”

What is the COVID inquiry asking for?

  • Unredacted messages sent and received by Boris Johnson between 1 January 2020 and 24 February 2022.
  • Unredacted diaries for Mr Johnson between 1 January 2020 and 24 February 2022
  • Copies of 24 unredacted notebooks filled in by Mr Johnson between 1 January 2020 and 24 February 2022
  • Unredacted messages sent and received by adviser Henry Cook between 1 January 2020 and 24 February 2022.
  • The inquiry wants messages – even from group chats – about the government response to COVID, as well as contact with a list of certain experts, ministers, civil servants and advisers

Labour peer and former lord chancellor Lord Falconer told Sky News that he believes the government does not “have a leg to stand on” when it comes to refusing the inquiry.

He thinks the Cabinet Office will opt for a judicial review – and that the “will either say go away, we’re not going to give you permission for a judicial review” or they will let a review take place in the next fortnight or so.

“The courts are not going to let the government string this out for any length of time,” he added.

Lord Falconer believes Mr Johnson likely sacked his Cabinet Office-appointed lawyers because they “weren’t willing to make the arguments” he wanted them to.

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‘Is Boris Johnson toast?’

Historian Sir Anthony Seldon, who has written a book on Mr Johnson’s time in office, said blocking Lady Hallett’s request would cause “interminable protests” about getting to the truth.

Mr Johnson does not oppose the messages being handed over in principle, according to his spokesperson, adding that the current row is with the Cabinet Office.

Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, has said he has made “all his records and materials” available to the inquiry.

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