POLICE Scotland’s covert investigations Unit has committed multiple breaches of a new code designed to protect journalists and their sources from illegal spying.

A UK surveillance watchdog initially uncovered a case of unlawful snooping by the Counter Corruption Unit (CCU), but the Sunday Herald understands several examples have now also been flushed out.

Since March 25, police forces across the UK have been required to get judicial approval before using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to unmask a journalist’s source.

The RIPA can give police access to details of phone records, text message and emails, but not the content of the communications.

The March law change was pushed through because police forces had used the legislation on journalists on hundreds of occasions.

Politicians in all the mainstream political parties believed deploying the RIPA in this way was a breach of human rights.

However, the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO) – which oversees use of the RIPA – announced in July that two unnamed forces had breached the new rules on judicial approval.

This newspaper revealed that one of the transgressors was Police Scotland’s CCU, which breached the Code in an attempt to identify a suspected journalistic source and middleman.

The IOCCO launched an investigation into a breach described as “serious” by the Prime Minister and it can now be disclosed that other violations of the Code by the same Unit have been found as well.

It is understood the Scottish Government is aware of the breaches and has concerns about the Unit.

Police Scotland was aware of the March law change at the time the legislation was tightened and held meetings to discuss its operation.

In order to access communications data under the RIPA, a “single point of contact” inside an organisation like Police Scotland must cast an eye over an application.

However, following the initial code breach, it is believed that the CCU’s system of single points of contact has been overhauled.

According to a source in the policing world, senior officers and government figures believe the mechanisms for holding the CCU to account are inadequate.

The recent death in custody case of Sheku Bayoh, as well as the M9 tragedy, are being investigated by the Police Investigations Review Commissioner, but it is not clear which devolved body should oversee the CCU.

The row, which the Holyrood justice committee is considering investigating, may also have a bearing on the appointment of a new chief constable.

Deputy chief constables Neil Richardson and Iain Livingstone are tipped as the most likely internal candidates to succeed House. Richardson’s portfolio includes the CCU.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie MSP said: "Such a flagrant disregard of the law by those who are meant to uphold it must be dealt with in the strongest terms. The Justice Secretary needs to come clean as to why these rules were breached not only once, but many times.

“This undermines public trust in policing and in the protection of our civil liberties against the powerful state. The people of Scotland need assurances that steps will be taken so that it never happens again."

Graeme Pearson, former senior police officer and now the Scottish Labour justice spokesman, said: “The use of powerful covert methods lies at the heart of any effective investigation of organised crime and terrorism. However, given the secret nature of that world public confidence in the trust given to the police and law enforcement must be founded on the knowledge that abuse of the powers offered by RIPA/ RIPSA will not occur.

“I hope for once the Scottish Police Authority and this SNP government will at last bring about the effective and, where possible, public scrutiny in this case to restore public confidence before any more damage is done.”

Scottish Conservative chief whip John Lamont said: “This is yet another worrying revelation in relation to the conduct of Police Scotland.

“How on earth is Scotland supposed to advertise itself as a modern, civilised society when officers can seemingly snoop on what is supposed to be a free press at the drop of a hat?

“These allegations need answers immediately, and people will think the reputation of the single force very much depends on a convincing response.”

Highlands and Islands MSP John Finnie, also an ex police officer, said: “If, as I understand, this investigation has unearthed systematic breaches of an important code of practice then this would suggest the police have shown utter contempt for the confidentiality journalists have the right to expect.

“I have already called for this matter to be considered at the Scottish Parliament and hope that will take place as soon as possible.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “This is a matter for IOCCO who has made clear that it would be wholly inappropriate for them to make public the identity of the police forces while their investigation is on-going and has set out the reasons for this."

A spokesperson for Police Scotland said: “IOCCO has clearly set out rationale for not identifying organisations in its report and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

IOCCO declined to comment.