Attorney-General v Guardian Newspapers Ltd (No 2) (‘Spycatcher’): HL 13 Oct 1988

Loss of Confidentiality Protection – public domain

A retired secret service employee sought to publish his memoirs from Australia. The British government sought to restrain publication there, and the defendants sought to report those proceedings, which would involve publication of the allegations made. The AG sought to restrain those publications.
Held: A duty of confidence arises when confidential information comes to the knowledge of a person (the confidant) in circumstances where he has notice, or is held to have agreed, that the information is confidential, with the effect that it would be just in all the circumstances that he should be precluded from disclosing the information to others. There would be no point in imposing a duty of confidence in respect of the secrets of the marital bed if newspapers were free to publish those secrets when betrayed to them by the unfaithful partner. When trade secrets are betrayed by a confidant it is usually the third party who exploits the information and it is the activity of the third party that must be stopped.
The court could look to the Convention to help decide how common law should develop. There was in principle no difference between article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights and the English law of confidence. ‘the principle of confidentiality only applies to information to the extent that it is confidential. In particular, once it has entered what is usually called the public domain (which means no more than that the information in question is so generally accessible that, in all the circumstances, it cannot be regarded as confidential) then, as a general rule, the principle of confidentiality can have no application to it.’ and ‘ I conceive it to be my duty, when I am free to do so, to interpret the law in accordance with the obligations of the Crown under [the Convention]. But for present purposes the important words are ‘when I am free to do so’. The sovereign legislator in the United Kingdom is Parliament. If Parliament has plainly laid down the law, it is the duty of the courts to apply it, whether that would involve the Crown in breach of an international treaty or not.’
Lord Griffiths considered the correct approach to the defence of public interest in a copyright action: ‘If Peter Wright owns the copyright in Spycatcher, which I doubt, it seems to me extremely unlikely that any court in this country would uphold his claim to copyright if any newspaper or any third party chose to publish Spycatcher and keep such profits as they might make to themselves. I would expect a judge to say that the disgraceful circumstances in which he wrote and published Spycatcher disentitled him to seek the assistance of the court to obtain any redress: see Glyn v Weston Feature Film Co. [1916] 1 Ch. 261.’ A third limiting principle of the protection afforded by the law of confidence was ‘although the basis of the law’s protection of confidence is that there is a public interest that confidences should be preserved and protected by the law, nevertheless that public interest may be outweighed by some other countervailing public interest which favours disclosure. This limitation may apply, as the learned judge pointed out, to all types of confidential information. It is this limiting principle which may require a court to carry out a balancing operation, weighing the public interest in maintaining confidence against a countervailing public interest favouring disclosure.’
Lord Jauncey said: ‘The courts of the United Kingdom will not enforce copyright claims in relation to every original literary work . . The publication of Spycatcher was against the public interest and was in breach of the duty of confidence which Peter Wright owed to the Crown. His action reeked of turpitude. It is in these circumstances inconceivable that a United Kingdom court would afford to him or his publishers any protection in relation to any copyright which either of them may possess in the book.’
Lord Goff of Chievely said that an obligation of confidence could arise even where the information in question had not been confided by a confider to a confidant: ‘I realise that, in the vast majority of cases, in particular those concerned with trade secrets, the duty of confidence will arise from a transaction or relationship between the parties – often a contract, in which event the duty may arise by reason of either an express or an implied term of that contract. It is in such cases as these that the expressions ‘confider’ and ‘confidant’ are perhaps most aptly employed. But it is well settled that a duty of confidence may arise in equity independently of such cases; and I have expressed the circumstances in which the duty arises in broad terms, not merely to embrace those cases where a third party receives information from a person who is under a duty of confidence in respect of it, knowing that it has been disclosed by that person to him in breach of his duty of confidence, but also to include certain situations, beloved of law teachers – where an obviously confidential document is wafted by an electric fan out of a window into a crowded street, or where an obviously confidential document, such as a private diary, is dropped in a public place, and is then picked up by a passer-by.’
Lord Goff set out three limiting principles for the rights of confidentiality: ‘The first limiting principle (which is rather an expression of the scope of the duty) is highly relevant to this appeal. It is that the principle of confidentiality only applies to information to the extent that it is confidential. In particular, once it has entered what is usually called the public domain (which means no more than that the information in question is so generally accessible that, in all the circumstances, it cannot be regarded as confidential) then, as a general rule, the principle of confidentiality can have no application to it.
The second limiting principle is that the duty of confidence applies neither to useless information, nor to trivia. There is no need for me to develop this point.
The third limiting principle is of far greater importance. It is that, although the basis of the law’s protection of confidence is that there is a public interest that confidences should be preserved and protected by the law, nevertheless that public interest may be outweighed by some other countervailing public interest which favours disclosure. This limitation may apply, as the learned judge pointed out, to all types of confidential information. It is this limiting principle which may require a court to carry out a balancing operation, weighing the public interest in maintaining confidence against a countervailing public interest favouring disclosure’.

Judges:

Lord Goff of Chieveley, Lord Hutton, Lord Hobhouse of Woodborough, Lord Griffiths, Lord Jauncey

Citations:

[1990] 1 AC 109, [1988] UKHL 6, [1987] 1 WLR 776, [1988] 3 All ER 545

Links:

Bailii

Statutes:

European Convention on Human Rights

Jurisdiction:

England and Wales

Citing:

ApprovedO Mustad and Son v Dosen and Another; O Mustad and Son vAllcock HL 1924
(Heard in 1924, but noted only in 1963) Dosen worked for a company T under a contract of employment that included an undertaking to keep confidential information acquired at work. His employer went into liquidation. The benefit of that company’s . .
ApprovedLion Laboratories Ltd v Evans CA 1985
Lion Laboratories manufactured and marketed the Lion Intoximeter which was used by the police for measuring blood alcohol levels of motorists. Two ex-employees approached the Press with four documents taken from Lion. The documents indicated that . .
CitedGlyn v Weston Feature Film Co 1916
Relief for copyright infringement was refused where the nature of the work tended to gross immorality. Younger J said that it was: ‘clear law that copyright cannot exist in a work of a tendency so grossly immoral as this, a work which apart from its . .
CitedBile Bean Manufacturing Co v Davidson SCS 1906
The second division refused relief against copyright infringement to a company which had perpetrated a deliberate fraud on the public by a series of false factual statements about its products. Lord Justice-Clerk Lord Macdonald said: ‘No man is . .
CitedSlingsby v Bradford Patent Truck and Trolley Co 1905
Equitable relief was refused for an infringement of copyright where the work made false statements with intention to deceive the public. . .
See AlsoAttorney General v Guardian Newspapers Ltd (No.1) HL 13-Aug-1987
A retired secret service officer intended to publish his memoirs through the defendant. The house heard an appeal against a temporary injunction restraining publication.
Held: Lord Bridge delivered his dissenting speech in the case of . .
At First InstanceAttorney-General v Guardian Newspapers Ltd QBD 1988
A Mr Peter Wright had written a book about his service in MI5. The Crown sought to restrain publication of the book by newspapers and also, as against The Sunday Times, an account of profits.
Held: As to this latter Scott J, said: ‘I had . .
Appeal FromAttorney-General v Guardian Newspapers Ltd CA 2-Jan-1988
A former employee of the Secret Service had written a book (‘Spycatcher’). The AG sought several remedies including damages against a newspaper for serialising it. Dillon LJ said: ‘It has seemed to me throughout the hearing of this appeal that there . .

Cited by:

CitedAttorney-General v Greater Manchester Newspapers Ltd QBD 4-Dec-2001
The defendant newspaper had published facts relating to the whereabouts of two youths protected by injunction against the publication of any information likely to lead to their location. The injunction was not ambiguous or unclear. ‘Likely’ did not . .
CitedFrankson and Others v Secretary of State for the Home Department; Johns v Same CA 8-May-2003
The claimants sought damages for injuries alleged to have been received at the hands of prison officers whilst in prison. They now sought disclosure by the police of statements made to the police during the course of their investigation.
Held: . .
CitedKiam v MGN Ltd CA 28-Jan-2002
Where a court regards a jury award in a defamation case as excessive, a ‘proper’ award can be substituted for it is not whatever sum court thinks appropriate, wholly uninfluenced by jury’s view, but the highest award which a jury could reasonably . .
CitedDirector of Public Prosecutions v Jones and Lloyd HL 4-Mar-1999
21 people protested peacefully on the verge of the A344, next to the perimeter fence at Stonehenge. Some carried banners saying ‘Never Again,’ ‘Stonehenge Campaign 10 years of Criminal Injustice’ and ‘Free Stonehenge.’ The officer in charge . .
CitedReynolds v Times Newspapers Ltd and others HL 28-Oct-1999
Fair Coment on Political Activities
The defendant newspaper had published articles wrongly accusing the claimant, the former Prime Minister of Ireland of duplicity. The paper now appealed, saying that it should have had available to it a defence of qualified privilege because of the . .
CitedCampbell v Mirror Group Newspapers Ltd (MGN) (No 1) HL 6-May-2004
The claimant appealed against the denial of her claim that the defendant had infringed her right to respect for her private life. She was a model who had proclaimed publicly that she did not take drugs, but the defendant had published a story . .
CitedTillery Valley Foods v Channel Four Television, Shine Limited ChD 18-May-2004
The claimant sought an injunction to restrain the defendants broadcasting a film, claiming that it contained confidential material. A journalist working undercover sought to reveal what he said were unhealthy practices in the claimant’s meat . .
CitedX, A Woman Formerly Known As Mary Bell v Stephen O’Brien, News Group Newspapers Ltd MGN Ltd QBD 21-May-2003
An injunction effective against the world, was granted to restrain any act to identify the claimant in the media, including the Internet. She had been convicted of murder when a child, and had since had a child herself. An order had been granted . .
CitedA, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, Mahmoud Abu Rideh Jamal Ajouaou v Secretary of State for the Home Department CA 11-Aug-2004
The claimants had each been detained without trial for more than two years, being held as suspected terrorists. They were free leave to return to their own countries, but they feared for their lives if returned. They complained that the evidence . .
CitedPaddick v Associated Newspapers Ltd QBD 10-Dec-2003
The defendant sought disclosure of full statements used by the claimant . Extracts only had been supplied, and he said they contained private and confidential material.
Held: The application failed. The claimant had stated that the balance of . .
CitedEPI Environmental Technologies Inc and Another v Symphony Plastic Technologies Plc and Another ChD 21-Dec-2004
The claimant had developed an additive which would assist in making plastic bags bio-degradable. They alleged that, in breach of confidentiality agreements, the defendants had copied the product. The defendants said the confidentiality agreement was . .
CitedHyde Park Residence Ltd v Yelland, News Group Newspapers Ltd, News International Ltd, Murrell CA 10-Feb-2000
The court considered a dispute about ownership and confidence in and copyright of of video tapes taken by Princess Diana before her death.
Held: The courts have an inherent discretion to refuse to enforce of copyright. When assessing whether . .
CitedDouglas and others v Hello! Ltd and others (No 3) CA 18-May-2005
The principal claimants sold the rights to take photographs of their wedding to a co-claimant magazine (OK). Persons acting on behalf of the defendants took unauthorised photographs which the defendants published. The claimants had retained joint . .
CitedHellewell v Chief Constable of Derbyshire QBD 13-Jan-1995
The police were asked by shopkeepers concerned about shoplifting, for photographs of thieves so that the staff would recognise them. The police provided photographs including one of the claimant taken in custody. The traders were told only to show . .
ApprovedDerbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers Ltd and Others HL 18-Feb-1993
Local Council may not Sue in Defamation
Local Authorities must be open to criticism as political and administrative bodies, and so cannot be allowed to sue in defamation. Such a right would operate as ‘a chill factor’ on free speech. Freedom of speech was the underlying value which . .
CitedRegina v Secretary of State for The Home Department Ex Parte Simms HL 8-Jul-1999
Ban on Prisoners talking to Journalists unlawful
The two prisoners, serving life sentences for murder, had had their appeals rejected. They continued to protest innocence, and sought to bring their campaigns to public attention through the press, having oral interviews with journalists without . .
CitedAxon, Regina (on the Application of) v Secretary of State for Health and Another Admn 23-Jan-2006
A mother sought to challenge guidelines issued by the respondent which would allow doctors to protect the confidentiality of women under 16 who came to them for assistance even though the sexual activities they might engage in would be unlawful.
CitedMcKennitt and others v Ash and Another QBD 21-Dec-2005
The claimant sought to restrain publication by the defendant of a book recounting very personal events in her life. She claimed privacy and a right of confidence. The defendant argued that there was a public interest in the disclosures.
Held: . .
CitedAssociated Newspapers Ltd v Prince of Wales CA 21-Dec-2006
The defendant newspaper appealed summary judgment against it for breach of confidence and copyright infringement having published the claimant’s journals which he said were private.
Held: Upheld, although the judge had given insufficient . .
CitedLord Browne of Madingley v Associated Newspapers Ltd CA 3-Apr-2007
The appellant sought to restrict publication by the defendants in the Mail on Sunday of matters which he said were a breach of confidence. He had lied to a court in giving evidence, whilst at the same time being ready to trash the reputation of his . .
CitedMosley v News Group Newspapers Ltd QBD 24-Jul-2008
The defendant published a film showing the claimant involved in sex acts with prostitutes. It characterised them as ‘Nazi’ style. He was the son of a fascist leader, and a chairman of an international sporting body. He denied any nazi element, and . .
CitedCallaghan v Independent News and Media Ltd QBNI 7-Jan-2009
callaghan_inmQBNI2009
The claimant was convicted in 1987 of a callous sexual murder. He sought an order preventing the defendant newspaper publishing anything to allow his or his family’s identification and delay his release. The defendant acknowledged the need to avoid . .
CitedMohamed, Regina (on the Application of) v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (No 4) Admn 4-Feb-2009
In an earlier judgment, redactions had been made relating to reports by the US government of its treatment of the claimant when held by them at Guantanamo bay. The claimant said he had been tortured and sought the documents to support his defence of . .
CitedBarclays Bank Plc v Guardian News Media Ltd QBD 19-Mar-2009
The bank sought continuation of an injunction preventing publication by the defendant of papers leaked to relating to the claimant’s tax management. The claimant claimed in confidentiality. The papers did not reveal any unlawful activity. The . .
CitedTchenguiz and Others v Imerman CA 29-Jul-2010
Anticipating a refusal by H to disclose assets in ancillary relief proceedings, W’s brothers wrongfully accessed H’s computers to gather information. The court was asked whether the rule in Hildebrand remained correct. W appealed against an order . .
CitedBritish Broadcasting Corporation v Harpercollins Publishers Ltd and Another ChD 4-Oct-2010
The claimant sought an injunction and damages to prevent the defendant publishing a book identifying himself as ‘the Stig’ saying that this broke his undertaking of confidentialty as to his identity, a necessary part of the character in the TV . .
CitedGray v News Group Newspapers Ltd and Another; Coogan v Same ChD 25-Feb-2011
The claimants said that agents of the defendant had unlawfully accessed their mobile phone systems. The court was now asked whether the agent (M) could rely on the privilege against self incrimination, and otherwise as to the progress of the case. . .
CitedSteen v Her Majesty’s Attorney General; Attorney-General v Punch Ltd and Another CA 23-Mar-2001
The appellant appealed against a finding of contempt of court at common law as regards a report in Punch published when he had been its editor.
Held: The appeal succeeded. The A-G had failed to establish the mens rea of contempt in the . .
CitedCTB v News Group Newspapers Ltd and Another (1) QBD 16-May-2011
A leading footballer had obtained an injunction restraining the defendants from publishing his identity and allegations of sexual misconduct. The claimant said that she had demanded money not to go public.
Held: It had not been suggested that . .
CitedCTB v News Group Newspapers Ltd and Thomas (2) QBD 23-May-2011
The claimant had obtained a privacy injunction, but the name of the claimant had nevertheless been widey distributed on the Internet. The defendant newspaper now sought to vary the terms. The second defendant did not oppose the injunction. . .
CitedGoodwin v NGN Ltd and VBN QBD 9-Jun-2011
The claimant had obtained an injunction preventing publication of his name and that of his coworker with whom he had had an affair. After widespread publication of his name elsewhere, the defendant had secured the discharge of the order as regards . .
CitedKJO v XIM QBD 7-Jul-2011
The claimant had, some 20 years previously, been convicted and sentenced for forgery of a will. The defendants, relatives, had ever since written to those with whom he had dealings to tell them of the conviction and facts. The claimant, unable to . .
CitedKelly (A Minor) v British Broadcasting Corporation FD 25-Jul-2000
K, aged 16, had left home to join what was said to be a religious sect. His whereabouts were unknown. He had been made a ward of court and the Official Solicitor was appointed to represent his interests. He had sent messages to say that he was well . .
CitedHutcheson v Popdog Ltd and Another CA 19-Dec-2011
The claimant had obtained an injunction to prevent the defendant publishing private materials regarding him. That injunction had been continued by consent but was no challenged by a third party news publisher.
Held: Leave to appeal was . .
CitedTwentieth Century Fox Film Corp and Others v Harris and Others ChD 5-Feb-2013
The court was asked whether a copyright owner has a proprietary claim to money derived from infringement of the copyright.
Held: He did not. No such argument could be shown to have suceeded before. . .
CitedVestergaard Frandsen A/S and Others v Bestnet Europe Ltd and Others SC 22-May-2013
The claimant companies appealed against a reversal of their judgment against a former employee that she had misused their confidential trade secrets after leaving their employment. The companies manufactured and supplied bednets designed to prevent . .
CitedMartin and Others Gabriele v Giambrone P/A Giambrone and Law QBNI 5-Mar-2013
The claimants had made investments through their solicitors, the defendants. The investments failed. The defendants were said to have made a foul and threatening posting on facebook about the claimant after failure in earlier proceedings. The . .
CitedLord Carlile of Berriew QC, and Others, Regina (on The Application of) v Secretary of State for The Home Department SC 12-Nov-2014
The claimant had supported the grant of a visa to a woman in order to speak to members of Parliament who was de facto leader of an Iranian organsation which had in the past supported terrorism and had been proscribed in the UK, but that proscription . .
CitedKennedy v The Charity Commission SC 26-Mar-2014
The claimant journalist sought disclosure of papers acquired by the respondent in its conduct of enquiries into the charitable Mariam appeal. The Commission referred to an absolute exemption under section 32(2) of the 2000 Act, saying that the . .
CitedPJS v News Group Newspapers Ltd SC 19-May-2016
The appellants had applied for restrictions on the publication of stories about their extra marital affairs. The Court of Appeal had removed the restrictions on the basis that the story had been widely spread outside the jurisdiction both on the . .
CitedWillers v Joyce and Another (Re: Gubay (Deceased) No 2) SC 20-Jul-2016
The Court was asked whether and in what circumstances a lower court may follow a decision of the Privy Council which has reached a different conclusion from that of the House of Lords (or the Supreme Court or Court of Appeal) on an earlier occasion. . .
CitedBancoult, Regina (on The Application of) (No 3) v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs SC 8-Feb-2018
Diplomatic Protection Lost to Public Domain
The claimant challenged the use of a Marine Protected Area Order to exclude the Chagossians from their homelands on their British Indian Overseas Territory. They had sought to have admitted and used in cross examination of witnesses leaked . .
CitedPatel v Mirza SC 20-Jul-2016
The claimant advanced funds to the respondent for him to invest in a bank of which the claimant had insider knowledge. In fact the defendant did not invest the funds, the knowledge was incorrect. The defendant however did not return the sums . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Media, Human Rights, Information

Leading Case

Updated: 02 May 2022; Ref: scu.180685