Arias and Others v Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police and Another: CA 1 Aug 1984

A police officer searched premises under a warrant seizing documents of a trust corporation managed by the occupier. The trustees sought return of the documents or, alternatively, copies of them. The police believed that the documents were evidence of a widespread fraud and that the documents were crucial to their investigations and that the investigation might be ‘hampered’ and disclosure might provide ‘an opportunity to fabricate evidence’. The police claim succeeded. The trustees appealed
Held: The appeal succeeded. May LJ giving the leading judgment said: ‘For my part I respectfully do not think that in that passage from his speech in IRC v. Rossminster . . which I have just read, Lord Diplock was intending to go as far as that. It seems to me quite apparent from his reference to ‘other evidence’ on the relevant application being ‘strong enough to justify the inference that no reasonable person could have thought so’ necessarily contemplates that to which Lord Morris referred in his speech in Conway v. Rimmer . . namely that in all these cases where there are conflicting public interests the ultimate decision as to which is to prevail must depend upon the exercise of discretion by the judge before whom the relevant application is made, that is to say by him conducting an appropriate balancing exercise of the one public interest against the other, and of the harm which would result from denying one public interest against the harm which would result from denying the other. That that is the duty of the court in these circumstances is, I think, quite apparent also from such cases as D v. NSPCC. . . In that context I quote paragraphs 19 and 21 of the learned judge’s judgment: ‘The second defendant –that is, the detective constable — has sworn that all the documents are crucial to his investigation and the reason why copies should not be provided he goes on to say, is because if they are disclosed at this stage there is a future real danger that his investigations may be hampered and an opportunity provided to fabricate evidence.
I am not satisfied that the evidence I have considered is strong enough to justify the inference that the Second Defendant has no reasonable grounds for his belief and accordingly this application for a mandatory injunction is refused.’
It will be immediately apparent that the learned judge’s reference to ‘evidence’ and ‘inference’ in paragraph 21 stems from the dictum of Lord Diplock in the Rossminster case which I have quoted . . ‘For my part I accept that in the factual context of the present case a claim to a public interest to retain documents so that criminal investigations may be properly prosecuted is at least arguable. I also accept, however, Mr. Purnell’s submission that in this particular case the claim to that public interest immunity goes very much further than it has in any other case. He submits, for instance, that it would not be difficult in almost any case –particularly any case involving documentary material –for the prosecuting authority to come along and depose genuinely on affidavit to their fear that if the documents were disclosed the alleged offenders might seek to fabricate defences. This shows, he submits, how wide is the claim for immunity in this appeal.
For the reasons which I have tried to give, I think at the end of the day, in these cases where there are two conflicting public interests involved and one cannot at once say that in the particular circumstances one or the other must clearly prevail, it is a question for the court to perform the sort of balancing exercise to which I have referred, setting the one public interest against the other, the benefit of which will accrue from the maintenance of the one against the benefit which will accrue from the maintenance of the other, and also the harm which will accrue from not allowing one or the other to succeed . . Whilst I bear in mind what Lord Morris said in his speech in Conway v. Rimmer . . that one must remember that it may sometimes be difficult for a person claiming this particular public interest privilege to condescend to substantial particulars for the very reason that, if he does, he may give the whole game away at that stage, I am satisfied that the evidence in the two affidavits to which I have referred, when properly and realistically analysed, is really only speculation. What the officer says, for instance, in the most recent affidavit is that, if the information were to be made available, ‘it would enable them, if so minded, to attempt to cover their tracks by the production of other documents based on the information contained in the documents which I hold.
As I have said, I take the view that in all these cases what the court has to do is to conduct the appropriate balancing exercise. I would not wish it to be thought that in every case something more than the mere statement of belief on reasonable grounds on the part of the relevant police officer or revenue officer is required. Each of these cases, in which this conflict of public interest arises has to be decided on its own facts having regard to all the circumstances of the case as they then appear to the court. Doing the balancing exercise in the present case, however, bearing in mind the view that I take of the speculative character of the evidence proffered on behalf of the respondents, I am driven to the conclusion that the fact that these documents are the appellants’ own documents, and that they are only asking for copies of them to enable the trust business to be carried on, even if they may wish to prepare their defence to any criminal prosecution which may hereafter be instituted, leads to the balance coming down clearly in favour of the appellants . . In my judgment, to make good that claim would require substantially more cogent evidence than is available in the affidavits sworn by the detective constable in the instant case.’
References: (1984) SJ (128) 784
Judges: Kerr, May LJJ
Jurisdiction: England and Wales
This case cites:

  • Cited – Conway v Rimmer HL 28-Feb-1968
    Crown Privilege for Documents held by the Polie
    The plaintiff probationary police constable had been investigated, prosecuted and cleared of an allegation of theft. He now claimed damages for malicious prosecution, and in the course of the action, sought disclosure of five documents, but these . .
    ([1968] AC 910, [1968] 2 WLR 998, [1968] 1 All ER 874, , [1968] UKHL 2)
  • Cited – Regina v Inland Revenue Commissioners ex parte Rossminster Ltd HL 13-Dec-1979
    The House considered the power of an officer of the Board of Inland Revenue to seize and remove materials found on premises which a warrant obtained on application to the Common Serjeant authorised him to enter and search; but where the source of . .
    ([1980] AC 952, , [1979] UKHL 5, [1980] 1 All ER 80)
  • Cited – D v National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children HL 2-Feb-1977
    Immunity from disclosure of their identity should be given to those who gave information about neglect or ill treatment of children to a local authority or the NSPCC similar to that which the law allowed to police informers.
    Lord Simon of . .
    ([1978] AC 171, [1977] 2 WLR 201, [1977] 1 All ER 589, , [1977] UKHL 1)

This case is cited by:

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Last Update: 27 November 2020; Ref: scu.443852