Marcel v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis: CA 1992

A writ of subpoena ad duces tecum had been issued requiring the production by the police for use in civil proceedings of documents seized during a criminal fraud investigation. The victim of the fraud needed them to pursue his own civil case.
Held: The court discharged the injunction granted at first instance and held that the police were obliged to comply with a subpoena which could only be resisted on grounds which would have been available to the true owner of the documents.
The statutory powers given to the police are coupled with a public law duty. The precise extent of the duty is difficult to define in general terms beyond saying that the powers must be exercised only in the public interest and with due regard to the rights of individuals. In the context of the seizure and retention of documents, the public law duty is combined with a private law duty of confidentiality towards the owner of the documents.
Dillon LJ said: ‘Even where a subpoena has been served, the police should not disclose the seized documents to the advisers of a party to civil proceedings in advance of the attendance at court required by the subpoena, unless at the least the police have first given to the true owner of the documents notice of the service of the subpoena and of the wish of the police to produce the documents in advance of the attendance at court required by the subpoena, and have given the true owner a reasonable opportunity to state his objections, if any, to that course.’ and ‘The responsibilities which are by law and custom entrusted to the police are wide and varied. The powers conferred upon them must be considered against the background of those responsibilities. If the hands of the police were too strictly tied with regard to the use of documents and information acquired under compulsory powers then the public interest would suffer . . The statutory powers given to the police are plainly coupled with a public law duty. The precise extent of that duty is, I think, difficult to define in general terms beyond saying that the powers must be exercised only in the public interest and with due regard to the rights of individuals.’
Sir Nicolas Browne-Wilkinson VC at first instance had said that section 22 referred to the duration of retention, not to its purpose: ‘However, there manifestly must be some limitation on the purposes for which seized documents can be used. Search and seizure under statutory powers constitute fundamental infringements of the individual’s immunity from interference by the state with his property and privacy – fundamental human rights. Where there is a public interest which requires some impairment of those rights, Parliament legislates to permit such impairment. But, in the absence of clear words, in my judgment Parliament cannot be assumed to have legislated so as to interfere with the basic rights of the individual to a greater extent than is necessary to secure the protection of that public interest. In the case of this Act, it is plainly necessary to trench upon the individual’s right to his property and privacy for the purpose of permitting the police to investigate and prosecute crime; hence the powers conferred by Part II of the Act. But in my judgment Parliament should not be taken to have authorised use of seized documents for any purpose the police think fit. For example, could the police provide copies of seized documents to the Press save in cases where publicity is necessary for the pursuit of their criminal investigations? . . In my judgment, subject to any express statutory provision in other Acts, the police are authorised to seize, retain and use documents only for public purposes related to the investigation and prosecution of crime and the return of stolen property to the true owner. Those investigations and prosecutions will normally be by the police themselves and involve no communication of documents or information to others. However, if communication to others is necessary for the purpose of the police investigation and prosecution, it is authorised. It may also be, though I do not decide, that there are other public authorities to which documents can properly be disclosed, for example to City and other regulatory authorities or to the security services. But in my judgment the powers to seize and retain are conferred for the better performance of public functions by public bodies and cannot be used to make information available to private individuals for their private purposes.’
Sir Christopher Slade said: ‘In my judgment, documents seized by a public authority from a private citizen in exercise of a statutory power can properly be used only for those purposes for which the relevant legislation contemplated that they might be used . . As a starting point, therefore, it is necessary to consider the purposes for which Parliament contemplated that documents seized under the powers conferred by Part II of the Act of 1984 might properly be used by the police. In my judgment, those purposes must be co-terminous with the purposes for which it envisaged that such documents might properly be retained by the police. The Vice Chancellor, ante, p.234B, stated that ‘Section 22 is dealing with the duration not the purpose of retention.’ I do not, for my part, read the scope of section 22 as being so limited as this. Not only does section 22(2) specify certain stated purposes for which anything seized for the purposes of a criminal investigation may be retained, but the subsection is prefaced by the words ‘Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) above.’ These prefacing words presuppose that subsection (1) has itself specified, albeit in general terms, the purposes for which documents seized by virtue of section 19 or 20 may be retained. Accordingly, it seems to me, they presuppose that the phrase in subsection (1), ‘so long as is necessary in all the circumstances,’ has specified in general terms not only the duration but also the purposes for which retention of seized documents may continue.’
What then is the meaning of the phrase in section 22(1), ‘so long as is necessary in all the circumstances?’ In my judgment, in its context, this phrase can only mean: so long as is necessary for carrying out the purposes for which the powers given by sections 19 and 20 have been conferred. I shall not attempt a comprehensive statement of those purposes. They clearly include inter alia the primary purposes of investigating and prosecuting crime and the return to the true owner of property believed to have been obtained in consequence of the commission of an offence. Further, the relevant sections would, I think, authorise acts which were reasonably incidental to the pursuit of those primary purposes, thus including in appropriate circumstances the disclosure to third parties of seized documents.’


Nolan LJ, Dillon LJ, Sir Christopher Slade


[1992] Ch 225, [1992] 1 All ER 72


Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 22


England and Wales

Cited by:

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CitedScopelight Ltd and Others v Chief of Police for Northumbria CA 5-Nov-2009
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CitedPhillips v Newsgroup Newspapers Ltd and Others ChD 17-Nov-2010
The claimant had been assistant to a well known publicist. The defendant had settled an action brought by her principal for hacking his mobile telephone, in the course of which it appeared that the claimant’s phone had also been hacked. She now . .
CitedMerseyside Police v Owens Admn 31-May-2012
The police had refused to returns items seized from Mr Owens on the basis that to do so would indirectly encourage and assist him in suspected criminal activity. CCTV footage had been removed from him to attempt identify an arsonist of a house.The . .
CitedRe Arrows Ltd No 4 HL 1995
The Court of Appeal had allowed an appeal from the judge who had directed that the transcripts of examinations of a director of an insolvent company under section 236 on the Director of the Serious Fraud Office undertaking that the transcripts would . .
CitedIngenious Media Holdings Plc and Another, Regina (on The Application of) v Revenue and Customs SC 19-Oct-2016
The tax payer complained that the Permanent Secretary for Tax had, in an off the record briefing disclosed tax details regarding a film investment scheme. Despite the off the record basis, details were published in a newspaper. His claims had been . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Police, Intellectual Property, Human Rights

Updated: 15 July 2022; Ref: scu.183559