- obtaining it or having to disclose it
It is thought that ”information is power” and making information available to the court and the parties to a claim has long been an integral part of the litigation process. Historically, the court of equity was the initial conduit for the process of the disclosure of information, ”discovery” as it was. It used to be that, at common law, a party could not be a witness in his own case – neither the claimant nor the defendant could be their own witness (!). As a result, the earliest bills in Chancery sought discovery of facts relevant to the claimant’s (then called the plaintiff) case to assist in achieving fair and equal judgment. With the passage of time, although the aims of discovery were recognised as valuable for litigation, its development led to onerous obligations on both parties, in terms of time, risk and cost. Often, it became a weapon which was capable of producing, in equity, as much of an injustice as it initially sought to guard against.
Fast forward to the 21st Century and the reforms brought about by ”Access to Justice” and the Jackson recommendations. Discovery, now renamed ”disclosure”, is still considered a vital element of litigation. It is recognised that there are substantial overall benefits to the exchange of information at an early stage of the proceedings - ensuring equality of access to evidence and possibly facilitating early settlement when parties have clarification of the strengths and weaknesses of their case. Discovery was, however, also ripe for reform given the perceived problems with the often disproportionate costs involved (and the possible, resulting undermining of access to justice), the practicalities of putting together often formidable court bundles (which were then largely unlooked at during a trial) and the ever-increasing need to deal with information contained in an electronic format.
So, what is disclosure? According to the Civil Procedure Rules (the ”CPR”), disclosure is merely a formal statement that a ”document exists or has existed”. And what is a document? The definition here includes ”anything in which information of any description is recorded” - written documents, audio tapes, videotapes, photographs, as well as electronic documents (emails, WP documents, and databases) are covered. Also covered is material not readily accessible (for example, electronic documents stored on servers and backup systems) as well as electronic documents which have been deleted. However, it is important to appreciate that it is the information contained within the document and its relevance to the issue(s) in dispute that determines whether or not a document is disclosable.
It is possible, in certain circumstances, for this disclosure to occur before proceedings have even been commenced. There are specific pre-action protocols across a range of dispute types as well as a general Practice Direction covering pre-action conduct. In these, potential litigants are actively encouraged to disclose relevant documents informally at an early stage (albeit only those documents which support their claim). The objective is to provide parties with ”sufficient information …to allow them to understand each other’s position”. The aim is to aid the potential parties to make ”informed decisions about how to proceed and possible approaches to settlement, possibly avoiding litigation completely”. These pre-action protocols carry much weight with the court. Knowledge of the requirements suggested by them and subsequent compliance with those suggestions is an important consideration for any potential litigant. The court has a discretion to order sanctions against a party in the face of non-compliance – in relation to disclosure, refusing to release documents has led to cost consequences for the non-compliant litigant.
Additionally, the court has various statutory powers (depending on the court/tribunal or the nature of the claim) to order disclosure from a potential party to subsequent proceedings. Under CPR31.16, there are a number of criteria that need to be satisfied for the court to consider an order for what is called pre-action disclosure - the application is between the likely parties to subsequent court (rather than arbitration) proceedings, the documents are going to be disclosable in those proceedings in any event, pre-action disclosure would be beneficial in terms of fairness, assisting in resolution of the dispute without proceedings and the lessening overall costs. Even if these criteria are met, the court has further discretion as to whether to grant such an order.
In exercising this discretion, the court will consider things such as the nature of the claim, its potential merits and the clarity of the issues involved, the costs (both in granting the order and the impact of not granting the order), the documents sought (their volume and nature), whether the information is available from other sources, and the previous conduct of the parties (this is where compliance or non-compliance with pre-action protocols in relation to disclosure may also impact positively/negatively on a litigant’s application).
Any documents disclosed at this pre-action stage (whether informally under a pre-action protocol or by court order) can generally only be used for the purposes of the anticipated proceedings.
Once proceedings have been commenced, the court has a further power to order disclosure against a person who is not a party to those proceedings themselves. However, there are limitations as to when such orders may be made. The information sought must only be available from the third party. Additionally, the documents to be disclosed must be likely to support the applicant’s case or adversely to affect the case of another party to the proceedings and disclosure must be necessary to dispose of the claim fairly or to save costs.
Again, even if these criteria are satisfied, it is still the court’s discretion as to whether the order will be made. For instance, no order for disclosure against a 3rd party will be given if compliance would be injurious to public interest. Nor will it be given if the definition of the document or the class of documents is not sufficiently clear and specific in the application itself. The court will also consider the interests of the non-party to protect his privacy and the confidentiality of the documents against the interests of the party seeking disclosure. This is a remedy of last resort; such an order is not going to be given routinely as the court will need to balance the rights of the 3rd party against the need of the applicant in relation to the case (the ability for it to be dealt with fairly or to save costs).
There are other well-established situations (either pre or post the issue of proceedings) where an equitable remedy involving disclosure may be ordered against 3rd parties by the court in very specific circumstances, seeking to achieve very specific results. For instance, these include:-
(a) Norwich Pharmacal orders – where an application can be made for disclosure of documents and/or information from a 3rd party who, while a non-party to the litigation, is somehow involved or mixed up in the wrongdoing (innocently or otherwise), and
(b) search orders (formerly Anton Pillar orders) - a form of mandatory injunction from a master or district judge in the High Court. Such an order allows for entry to the defendant’s premises to search for, copy and remove documents and/or material in relation to the dispute. The aim is to prevent evidence being lost or destroyed. However, given the nature of the application and its potential impact, the application must be based on a very clear case with clear evidence of the document in the defendant’s hands as well its possible destruction.
In deciding whether pre-action disclosure or disclosure from a third party would be appropriate, the court is looking to balance finding a resolution to a dispute without recourse to actual proceedings as against assisting with an applicant’s nebulous claim. The court’s various powers in relation to requiring the disclosure of information (whether pre-proceedings between the parties or from a 3rd party) are important considerations for a potential litigant. Knowing and understanding the jurisdictional criteria that need to be established for any such order are important tools in the litigant’s arsenal.