Breach of confidence: the latest from the Supreme Court

May 22nd, 2013 by Ben Hooper

The Supreme Court gave judgment today in Vestergaard Frandsen A/S v. Bestnet Europe Limited [2013] UKSC 31. The appeal concerned whether a company (Vestergaard) could sue a former employee – who had helped to establish a rival business – for breach of confidence in circumstances where the former employee (i) had never herself acquired the confidential information in question and (ii) did not know at the time that the rival business was using the confidential information. The sole judgment was given by Lord Neuberger, who held that (i) and (ii) precluded liability in breach of confidence on the part of the former employee.

The judgment does not contain any novel or radical principles. But information lawyers will wish to note the useful overview of the types of cases in which liability will arise (paragraphs 22-27), and Lord Neuberger’s analysis of the limits of liability based on common design (paragraphs 32-39).

Ben Hooper


HRH the Prince of Wales: advocacy of an ordinary man

September 19th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

The Upper Tribunal’s judgment in Evans v IC and Others (Seven Government Departments) [2012] UKUT 313 (AAC) (Mr Justice Walker, Professor John Angel and Suzanne Cosgrave), handed down yesterday, has received extensive media coverage – unsurprisingly so, given the subject matter (Prince Charles’ correspondence with government departments) and the requester (Rob Evans of the Guardian). The judgment is stupendously long (65 pages, plus 3 open annexes). Here are the salient points.

The issues

Mr Evans made requests in April 2005 for correspondence between Prince Charles and seven government departments. Crucially, this was confined to correspondence involving “advocacy” on the part of Prince Charles, i.e. information on (a) “identifying charitable need and setting up and driving forward charities to meet it”, and/or (b) the promotion of Prince Charles’ views on various issues. It was described as “argumentative correspondence”. The interaction with government first revealed in the Prince Charles-approved biography by Jonathan Dimbleby published in November 1994.

Disclosure was refused on the basis of a number of exemptions under FOIA: ss. 37(1) (communications with Her Majesty, with other members of the Royal Family or the Royal Household), 40(2) (presonal data) and 41 (actionable breach of confidence). Insofar as it comprised environmental information, the requested information was refused on the basis of reg. 12(5)(f) EIR (adverse affect on the interests of the person who provided the information).

The relevant date for the Upper Tribunal’s assessment was 40 days after Mr Evans’ requests for interal reviews of these refusals, i.e. 28 February 2006. At that stage, the relevant part of s. 37(1) was a qualified rather than an absolute exemption.

The Upper Tribunal found in Mr Evans’ favour with respect to all of the exemptions: the public interest favoured disclosure (in the case of the qualified and EIR exemptions), disclosure of the relevant personal data would not breach a data protection principle, and any action for breach of confidence would be defeated by a public interest defence.

The crucial issue: advocacy correspondence and the education/apprenticeship convention

The case for withholding the information was to stand or fall with the analysis of the relevant constitutional conventions (practices which are non-legal but fundamental to the UK’s parliamentary democracy) concerning communications between the monarchy and government. The Upper Tribunal analysed these conventions in depth, and addressed the crucial issue of the extent to which they were relevant to the “advocacy” correspondence in dispute.

Two conventions are extremely important. The cardinal convention is that the monarch acts on advice. The tripartite convention is that the monarch is entitled to be consulted, to encourage and to warn her ministers. The Upper Tribunal was satisfied that “there is ample reason to justify the principle that the internal operation of these two conventions is not revealed, at least until after a long time has passed” (paragraph 87). These two conventions, however, apply only to the sovereign – not to the heir.

The pivotal convention relied on in this case was the “education convention”, whereby the heir to the throne is to be instructed in the business of government. The Upper Tribunal preferred this label to the proposed alternative of “apprenticeship convention”: the latter term assumed what it had to prove, namely that Prince Charles was through the disputed correspondence practising the skills required of him when he becomes the sovereign, rather than some other skills. Also, the work of apprentices is overseen by masters; Prince Charles is thus not like an apprentice or, for that matter, a pupil barrister (the Upper Tribunal noted) insofar as he is conducting his advocacy correspondence.

Until relatively recently, the education convention was, in constitutional terms, “little more than a footnote” (paragraph 89). Nonetheless, it was important, and the Upper Tribunal’s judgment did not entitle Mr Evans to information caught by that convention.

The fundamental issue here was that, contrary to the case for the government departments (who advanced the novel case that the education convention encompassed all information of this kind) the advocacy correspondence did not come within the education convention. The Upper Tribunal considered that the alleged constitutionally-important confidentiality of such advocacy correspondence could not be reconciled with the disclosures in the Dimbleby biography.

Ultimately (paragraph 99):

“The plain facts are that what Prince Charles is doing is not prompted by a desire to become more familiar with the business of government, and simply is not addressing what his role would be as king…  they all have as their context Prince Charles’s strong belief that certain action on the part of government is needed.”

See also paragraph 106:

“… there is an overwhelming difficulty in suggesting that there is good reason for regarding advocacy correspondence by Prince Charles as falling within a constitutional convention… it is the constitutional role of the monarch, not the heir to the throne, to encourage or warn government. Accordingly it is fundamental that advocacy by Prince Charles cannot have constitutional status… the communication of encouragement or warning to government has constitutional status only when done by the monarch.”

The key conclusion: Prince Charles’ advocacy correspondence has no special status favouring non-disclosure

The Upper Tribunal was clear that, for Prince Charles as for anyone else seeking to advance charitable causes or promote views through correspondencw with government, such advocacy correspondence would generally be disclosable. See paragraph 7:

“Confidential interaction between government ministers and others, in a context where those others are seeking to advance the work of charities or to promote views, would generally be disclosable – especially where those others have privileged access to ministers. Our conclusion is that special factors concerning Prince Charles will not – under the legislation governing the requests in this case – generally result in a different consequence.”

In other words, Prince Charles’ advocacy correspondence is to be treated in the same way as anyone else’s. See paragraph 210:

 “We are not persuaded that they warrant giving correspondence between ministers and Prince Charles greater protection from disclosure than would be afforded to correspondence with others who have dealings with government in a context where those others are seeking to advance the work of charities or to promote views.”

The result was that the public interest/fairness factors favouring non-disclosure were not especially weighty, at least in that they did not have any constitutional significance. This judgment is also the first binding confirmation that, as with the EIR, the public interests protected by each separate FOIA exemption are to be aggregated, and the cumulative public interest in non-disclosure is to be weighed against that in disclosure (see paragraph 207).

The public interest in disclosure

So, when analysing the public interest/fairness case for withholding the information, Prince Charles was to be treated like an ordinary person. Prince Charles is, however, not like an ordinary person, given his position and influence. The Upper Tribunal found there to be great public interest in how he sought to wield that influence through his advocacy correspondence. It also made a number of important observations on ‘general’ (i.e. non-case-specific) factors favouring disclosure, and commented on the relevance of media interest. The most notable public interest points are below.

The Upper Tribunal firmly endorsed the strength of the public interest in transparency on important governmental matters generally, irrespective of whether the particular information does or does not answer any questions of specific concern. See paragraph 133 (my emphasis):

“… we think it important that the strength of these general interests should be acknowledged rather than minimised. It is because other methods of achieving accountability and transparency have had only limited success that freedom of information has been agreed by signatories to the Aarhus convention as regards environmental matters, and enacted more generally throughout the United Kingdom as a whole. When disputed information concerns important aspects of the working of government, the interests in accountability and transparency will be not merely of general importance, but of particular strength.”

On a similar note, the Upper Tribunal was clear that an informed debate was something of great importance, regardless of whether the information helped dispel or confirm any particular suspicions about how Prince Charles wielded influence. See paragraph 151:

“It seems to us that the perception that Prince Charles exercises special influence stems from the biography. As to whether it would either be confirmed or dispelled by disclosure of the disputed information, this too seems to us to miss the point: the public interest lies in having an informed debate.”

Moving on to the particular nature of the information in dispute, there was strong public interest in transparency of Prince Charles’ advocacy correspondence, particularly given that he seeks to conduct that correspondence in a way that represents the interests of (at least some of) the public. See paragraphs 141-142, and 152:

“The fact that Prince Charles corresponds with and meets ministers, on confidential terms, is in the public domain: but without the disclosure of actual examples of the correspondence, it is difficult for the public to understand what this actually means in practice… whether this country should remain a monarchy is of course a legitimate matter of public debate. More generally, debate about the extent and nature of interaction between government and the royal family, and how the monarchy fits in to our constitution, goes to the heart of understanding the constitutional underpinning of our current system of government. We conclude that these are all important and weighty considerations in favour of disclosure.

We agree with the Departments that when it is said that Prince Charles speaks “on behalf of us all” that reflects that he writes to ministers on what he believes is in the public interest. This, however, does not answer Mr Evans’s point that it seems incongruous that the public should not know about it.”

As to the public interest defence to a breach of personal confidence, the Upper Tribunal considered it important that Prince Charles voluntarily conducts himself as a public figure. See paragraph 202:

“It would be unreal to contend that Prince Charles is not a public figure. Neither the Commissioner nor the Departments advance such a contention. There is, however, in our view a strong air of unreality about their contention that his birth gave him no choice as to whether to engage in advocacy correspondence. The analogy made by Mr Fordham with a hereditary peer was in that regard compelling: some may feel impelled to intervene for the public good as they see it, either publicly or behind the scenes. Others may not. Applying the Strasbourg case-law we see no basis for saying that when Prince Charles does so his actions must be characterised as “truly personal.” On the contrary they are, on his own description, all motivated by a desire to put the “Great” back in Great Britain.”

Media interest was a relevant public interest factor, but the Upper Tribunal was careful to distinguish sensationalism from serious reporting. See paragraph 157 (my emphasis):

“The media interest in Prince Charles’s interaction with ministers is substantial.  It seems to us that this is not a factor which in itself necessarily favours disclosure.  What is relevant is that there is a real debate, generating widespread public interest, on a matter which goes to the heart of our constitution.  Sensationalism merely for the sake of it will not generally be in the public interest.  The media accounts we have seen have, on occasion, had sensationalist aspects.  For the most part, however, the media reporting is of a kind which has focused on the substance.  It is relevant when assessing the public interest to note the extent to which, over the relevant period, there have been media reports of this kind.”

The Upper Tribunal was not persuaded that disclosure would have a “chilling effect” on correspondence between the Prince and the government. Nor did it consider it relevant that the Prince’s advocacy was not motivated by any desire for commercial gain.

A final important point on the public interest balance concerned the argument (advanced relatively frequently) that disclosure of this information would engender misconceptions or misunderstandings on the part of the public. Again, the Upper Tribunal was not persuasive. It said this at paragraph 188 (my emphasis):

“There is, as it seems to us, a short answer to all the various ways in which the Departments have sought to rely on dangers of “misperception” on the part of the public. It is this: the essence of our democracy is that criticism within the law is the right of all, no matter how wrongheaded those on high may consider the criticism to be.

The future: ‘interesting questions’

Given its assessment of important constitutional principles (not only as regards the heir to the throne, but as regards democratic engagement more generally), this judgment is a very important development in FOIA jurisprudence.

However, s. 37 is now largely an absolute exemption (thanks to the changes to FOIA made by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act; as an aside, see the unsuccessful attempt to obtain information on how those changes came about: Pragnell v IC and Ministry of Justice (EA/2011/0279)). Does this mean Evans is of largely historic interest when it comes to information concerning the monarchy? The answer is, probably not. First, some requests for information made prior to the CRAG changes remain to be resolved. Secondly, the EIR have of course not been correspondingly changed – which raises what the Upper Tribunal considered “interesting questions”. “Environmental information” has been sought from members of the royal family in the past: Bruton v IC and Duchy of Cornwall (EA/2010/0182)) was one such case, and one imagines it will not be the last. The Evans principles may therefore be highly relevant in future cases.

11KBW’s Jonathan Swift QC, Julian Milford and Tim Pitt-Payne QC appeared in this case.

Robin Hopkins