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Friday, 26 September 2003


An unusual slant on the protection of confidentiality cropped up in Maddock v Devon County Council, a mid-August out-of-term case before Judge Rich (a Deputy Judge) which has somewhat belatedly come to light through the subscription-only Lawtel service. What happened was this. Maddock wanted to become a social worker and obtained a university place to study that subject. The council subsequently disclosed information on its files to the university concerning Maddock's fitness to be a social worker, following which the university withdrew Maddock's place. Maddock then sued the council for damages for breach of confidence, for making allegedly negligent misstatements and for infringement of Art.8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The council conceded that there was an obligation of confidentiality in respect of its files, but argued that the disclosure of the information was necessary in the public interest, claiming that its social services had been involved in the upbringing of Maddock's son almost since his birth, that Maddock had refused to accept any responsibility for his difficulties and that his name was eventually placed on the child protection register on the ground of emotional abuse. The council later refused to withdraw its communications. As a result of the council's disclosure, the university removed Maddock from the course after conducting its own inquiry, having given Maddock an opportunity to put her case.

Judge Rich QC dismissed all Maddock's claims. In doing so he observed that it was for the council to decide whether to make the disclosure since there was no requirement for it to obtain a court ruling before doing so. He added that in general, as a matter of good practice, a party in the council's position, in a case such as this, should inform the subject of the disclosure of that intention in enough time to enable that person to seek an injunction from the courts before the intended disclosure takes place. In this case, though, the council's decision not to do so was justifiable.

The IPKat is unaware of other cases in which a party considering the communication of confidential information would be expected by a court to let the subject of that information know first. He notes that the other party of one's intentions before committing a potentially wrongful act is however a concept well known in European trade mark law, where the European Court of Justice has said that parallel importers should notify trade mark owners before importing repackaged goods into countries within the European Economic Area.

Thinking of not keeping a secret? Read here, here and here
Best secrets revealed here, here and here

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