Norwich Pharmacal Co and others v Customs and Excise Commissioners: HL 26 Jun 1973

Innocent third Party May still have duty to assist

The plaintiffs sought discovery from the defendants of documents received by them innocently in the exercise of their statutory functions. They sought to identify people who had been importing drugs unlawfully manufactured in breach of their patents.
Held: Disclosure should be ordered. If someone, even innocently became involved in tortious acts committed by third parties, he became under a duty assist in discovery of the identity of the third party wrongdoers. How the information was acquired was not relevant. Duties of confidence owed by taxation authorities could be overborne if necessary.
Lord Reid said: ‘So discovery to find the identity of a wrongdoer is available against anyone against whom the plaintiff has a cause of action in relation to the same wrong. It is not available against a person who has no other connection with the wrong than that he was a spectator or has some document relating to it in his possession. But the respondents are in an intermediate position. Their conduct was entirely innocent; it was in execution of their statutory duty. But without certain action on their part the infringements could never have been committed. Does this involvement in the matter make a difference?’ to which he answered ‘Yes’.
Referring to the authorities, he said: ‘They seem to me to point to a very reasonable principle that if through no fault of his own a person gets mixed up in the tortious acts of others so as to facilitate their wrongdoing he may incur no personal liability but he comes under a duty to assist the person who has been wronged by giving him full information and disclosing the identity of the wrongdoers. I do not think that it matters whether he became so mixed up by voluntary action on his part or because it was his duty to do what he did. It may be that if this causes him expense the person seeking the information ought to reimburse him. But justice requires that he should co-operate in righting the wrong if he unwittingly facilitated its perpetration.
I am the more inclined to reach this result because it is clear that if the person mixed up in the affair has to any extent incurred any liability to the person wronged, he must make full disclosure even though the person wronged has no intention of proceeding against him. It would I think be quite illogical to make his obligation to disclose the identity of the real offenders depend on whether or not he has himself incurred some minor liability. I would therefore hold that the respondents must disclose the information now sought unless there is some consideration of public policy which prevents that.’
Lord Kilbrandon: ‘There is no suggestion that in so doing he is pretending to exercise any right of relief against the discoverers.
In my opinion, accordingly, the respondents, in consequence of the relationship in which they stand, arising out of their statutory functions, to the goods imported, can properly be ordered by the court to disclose to the appellants the names of persons whom the appellants bona fide believe to be infringing these rights, this being their only practicable source of information as to whom they should sue, subject to any special right of exception which the respondents may qualify in respect of their position as a department of state. It has to be conceded that there is no direct precedent for the granting of such an application in the precise circumstances of this case, but such an exercise of the power of the court seems to be well within broad principles authoritatively laid down. That exercise will always be subject to judicial discretion, and it may well be that the reason for the limitation in practice on what may be a wider power to order discovery, to any case in which the defendant has been ‘mixed up with the transaction’, to use Lord Romilly’s words, or ‘stands in some relation’ to the goods, within the meaning of the decision in Post v Toledo, Cincinnati and St Louis Railroad Co (1887) 11 NERep 540, is that that is the way in which judicial discretion ought to be exercised.’
Viscount Dilhorne referred to the antiquity of the mere witness rule and considered the principle of whether disclosure could be ordered in the case before him: ‘discovery can be granted against a person who is not a mere witness to discover, the fact of some wrongdoing being established, who was responsible for it. The ‘mere witness’ rule has lost a great deal of its importance since the Common Law Procedure Act removed the bar to persons interested giving evidence, but it still has significance. Someone involved in the transaction is not a mere witness. If he could be sued, even though there be no intention of suing him, he is not a mere witness . . Are the respondents to be regarded as so involved in this case? I think the answer is yes.’

Lord Reid, Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest, Viscount Dilhorne, Lord Cross of Chelsea and Lord Kilbrandon
[1974] AC 133, [1973] 3 WLR 164, [1973] 2 All ER 943, [1973] UKHL 6, [1974] RPC 101, [1973] FSR 365
lip, Bailii
England and Wales
AppliedPost v Toledo, Cincinnati and St Louis Railroad Co 1887
Powers of discovery where third party is involved in some way in the matters underlying the issue. . .
AppliedOrr v Diaper 1876
The plaintiff had a cause of action against the defendant and sought discovery of the name of a third party known to the defendant so that that third party could be joined in. ‘In this case the Plaintiffs do not know, and cannot discover, who the . .
AppliedUpmann v Elkan CA 5-Jun-1871
The defendant freight forwarding agent was innocently in possession of consignments of counterfeit cigars in transit to Germany through a London dock. The action was not for discovery, but for an order restraining the forwarder from releasing the . .
At First InstanceNorwich Pharmacal Co and others v Customs and Excise Commissioners ChD 1972
The court considered an application for an order that the other party identify third party wrong-doers. . .
Appeal from (reversed)Norwich Pharmacal Co and others v Customs and Excise Commissioners CA 2-Jan-1972
The plaintiffs sought discovery of the names of patent infringers from the defendant third party, submitting that by analogy with trade mark and passing-off cases, the Customs could be ordered to give discovery of the names.
Held: Buckley LJ . .

Cited by:
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An order for a journalist to disclose the name of an employee disclosing his employer’s information, may be made where there was a need to identify a disloyal employee. Here drafts of accounts had been released to embarrass the company. The . .
CitedTotalise Plc v The Motley Fool Limited and Interative Investor Limited (2) CA 19-Dec-2001
The respondent operated a web site which contained a chat room. Defamatory remarks were made by a third party through the chat room, and the claimant sought details of the identity of the poster. The respondent refused to do so without a court . .
CitedAustralia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd v National Westminster Bank plc and Others ChD 6-Feb-2002
Where an innocent party had been joined in an action in order to ensure proper discovery, he should be excused from the action once he had complied with the discovery required. It would be wrong to continue his involvement against an unsupported . .
CitedFinancial Times Ltd and others v Interbrew SA CA 8-Mar-2002
The appellants appealed against orders for delivery up of papers belonging to the claimant. The paper was a market sensitive report which had been stolen and doctored before being handed to the appellant.
Held: The Ashworth Hospital case . .
AppliedAshworth Security Hospital v MGN Limited HL 27-Jun-2002
Order for Journalist to Disclose Sources
The newspaper published details of the medical records of Ian Brady, a prisoner and patient of the applicant. The applicant sought an order requiring the defendant newspaper to disclose the identity of the source of material which appeared to have . .
CitedArsenal Football Club plc and Others v Elte Sports Distribution Ltd ChD 10-Dec-2002
The claimant alleged that the respondent had unlawfully made use of photographs of its footballers in a calendar. The respondent asked the court to strike out the claim as merely speculative, and the claimant sought pre-action disclosure.
CitedBritish Steel Corporation v Granada Television Ltd HL 7-May-1980
The defendant had broadcast a TV programme using material confidential to the plaintiff, who now sought disclosure of the identity of the presumed thief.
Held: (Lord Salmon dissenting) The courts have never recognised a public interest right . .
FollowedLoose v Williamson 1978
. .
FollowedRCA Corporation v Reddingtons Rare Records 1974
Interlocutory relief on the basis of the Norwich Pharmacal principle could be ordered, for example, on motion. . .
CitedBritish Steel Corporation v Granada Television Ltd CA 7-May-1980
Lord Denning MR said that the Norwich Pharmacal case opened ‘a new chapter in our law’ and ‘Mr Irvine suggested this was limited to cases where the injured person desired to sue the wrongdoer. I see no reason why it should be so limited. The same . .
CitedP v T Limited 1997
The jurisdiction under Norwich Pharmacal is not confined to circumstances where there has been tortious wrongdoing and is now available where there has been contractual wrongdoing. . .
CitedCarlton Film Distributors Ltd v VCI Plc 2003
. .
CitedMitsui and Co Ltd v Nexen Petroleum UK Ltd ChD 29-Apr-2005
Mitsui sought disclosure of documents from a third party under the rules in Norwich Pharmacal.
Held: Such relief was available ‘where the claimant requires the disclosure of crucial information in order to be able to bring its claim or where . .
CitedCHC Software Care v Hopkins and Wood 1993
The jurisdiction to require discovery of documents from a third party is not restricted to seeking information from an innocent third party. The third party may himself be one of the wrongdoers. . .
CitedAoot Kalmneft v Denton Wilde Sapte (A Firm) Merc 29-Oct-2001
The court ordered relief by way of disclosure against a third party: ‘In Norwich Pharmacal the information required was the identity of the wrongdoer (the applicant knew what wrong had been done but not who had done it) but I see no reason why the . .
CitedMersey Care NHS Trust v Ackroyd QBD 7-Feb-2006
The trust, operators of Ashworth Secure Hospital sought from the defendant journalist disclosure of the name of their employee who had revealed to the defendant matters about the holding of Ian Brady, the Moors Murderer, and in particular medical . .
CitedMicrosoft Corporation v Ling and others ChD 3-Jul-2006
The claimant sought damages against the respondent for various infringements in sales of unlicensed products, and also additional damages. The defendant argued that Microsoft’s licensing arrangements acted anti-competively.
Held: ‘the . .
CitedHughes v Carratu International Plc QBD 19-Jul-2006
The claimant wished to bring an action against the defendant enquiry agent, saying that it had obtained unlawful access to details of his bank accounts, and now sought disclosure of documents. The defendant denied wrongdoing, and said it had . .
CitedMersey Care NHS Trust v Ackroyd CA 21-Feb-2007
The defendant journalist had published confidential material obtained from the claimant’s secure hospital at Ashworth. The hospital now appealed against the refusal of an order for him to to disclose his source.
Held: The appeal failed. Given . .
CitedDobson and Dobson v North Tyneside Health Authority and Newcastle Health Authority CA 26-Jun-1996
A post mortem had been carried out by the defendants. The claimants, her grandmother and child sought damages after it was discovered that not all body parts had been returned for burial, some being retained instead for medical research. They now . .
CitedSheffield Wednesday Football Club Ltd and others v Hargreaves QBD 18-Oct-2007
The defendant operated a web forum in which posters posted defamatory messages about the claimants. The claimants sought an order disclosing the contact details of the members of the forum. The owner of the forum said he had undertaken not to . .
CitedSmith v ADVFN Plc QBD 13-Mar-2008
Order re case management application. The claimant said he had been defamed on an internet forum run by the defendants, and sought orders for disclosure of the identities of the posters to the website. The operator said that special software might . .
CitedSmith v ADVFN Plc CA 15-Apr-2008
The claimant complained of defamation on internet bulletin boards. He made an application to require the forum operator to disclose IP addresses and other information about posters under a Norwich Pharmacal order. Further applications were made for . .
CitedSmith v ADVFN Plc and others QBD 25-Jul-2008
The claimant had brought multiple actions in defamation against anonymous posters on an online forum. The claimant sought to lift the stay which had been imposed because of the number of actions. The claimant had not yet paid outstanding costs . .
CitedMohamed, Regina (on the Application of) v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (No 1) Admn 21-Aug-2008
The claimant had been detained by the US in Guantanamo Bay suspected of terrorist involvement. He sought to support his defence documents from the respondent which showed that the evidence to be relied on in the US courts had been obtained by . .
CitedBanker’s Trust v Shapira CA 1980
Enforcement through innocent third party bank
Two forged cheques, each for USD500,000, had been presented by two men and as a result USD1,000,000 had been transferred to accounts in their names. The plaintiff sought to trace assets through the banks involved.
Held: The court approved the . .
CitedArab Monetary Fund v Hashim and On (No.5) 1992
The rule in Norwich Pharmacal does not provide a general right of discovery. Hoffman J cited Lord Reid in Norwich Pharmacal and said: ‘The reference to ‘full information’ has sometimes led to an assumption that any person who has become mixed up in . .
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 . .
CitedFinancial Times Ltd and Others v The United Kingdom ECHR 15-Dec-2009
The claimants said that an order that they deliver up documents leaked to them regarding a possible takeover violated their right to freedom of expression. They complained that such disclosure might lead to the identification of journalistic . .
CitedUnited Company Rusal Plc and Others v HSBC Bank Plc and Others QBD 1-Mar-2011
The claimants sought an order for discovery here from a third party of documents required to support proposed litigation in Russia.
Held: Tugendhat J said: ‘the court [has] to be as satisfied as it can be, having regard to the limitations . .
CitedThe Rugby Football Union v Viagogo Ltd QBD 30-Mar-2011
The claimant objected to the resale through the defendant of tickets to matches held at the Twickenham Stadium. The tickets contained terms disallowing resales at prices over the face value. They sought orders for the disclosure of the names of the . .
CitedThe President of the State of Equatorial Guinea and Another v Bank of Scotland International PC 27-Feb-2006
(Guernsey) Lord Bingham said: ‘Norwich Pharmacal relief exists to assist those who have been wronged but do not know by whom. If they have straight forward and available means of finding out, then it will not be reasonable to achieve that end by . .
CitedMedia Cat Ltd v Adams and Others PCC 18-Apr-2011
The claimants had begun copyright infringement cases. Having been refused a request to be allowed to withdraw the cases as an abuse, their solicitors now faced an application for a wasted costs order.
Held: The court only has jurisdiction to . .
CitedBritish Telecommunications Plc and Another, Regina (on The Application of) v The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Admn 20-Apr-2011
The claimant sought judicial review of legislative provisions requiring Internet Service Providers to become involved in regulation of copyright infringements by its subscribers. They asserted that the Act and proposed Order were contrary to . .
CitedThe Rugby Football Union v Consolidated Information Services Ltd SC 21-Nov-2012
The Union challenged the right of the respondent to resell tickets to international rugby matches. The tickets were subject to a condition rendering it void on any resale at above face value. They said that the respondent had advertised tickets in . .
CitedVarious Claimants v News Group Newspapers Ltd and Others ChD 12-Jul-2013
The claimants sought disclosure by the police of information relating to the phone hacking activities said to have been conducted by journalists engaged by the first defendant newspaper. They were wanting to make claims against the respondent, but . .
CitedCartier International Ag and Others v British Telecommunications Plc and Another SC 13-Jun-2018
The respondent ISP companies had been injuncted to stop the transmission of websites which infringed the trade mark rights of the claimants. The ISPs now appealed from the element of the order that they pay the claimants’ costs of implementing the . .

Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Litigation Practice, Information, Customs and Excise

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Updated: 01 November 2021; Ref: scu.174124