Define: Breach Of Confidence

Breach Of Confidence
Breach Of Confidence
What is the dictionary definition of Breach Of Confidence?
Dictionary Definition of Breach Of Confidence

Breach of confidence refers to the unauthorised disclosure or use of confidential information by a person who owes a duty of confidence to another party. This legal concept is often applied in cases where a person has obtained confidential information through a confidential relationship, such as employment or a contractual agreement, and then discloses or uses that information without permission. The breach of confidence can occur through various means, including verbal communication, written documents, or electronic transmission. In order to establish a breach of confidence, the claimant must demonstrate that the information in question was confidential, that it was disclosed without authorization, and that the disclosure caused harm or potential harm to the claimant. Remedies for breach of confidence may include injunctions to prevent further disclosure or use of the confidential information, damages to compensate for any harm suffered, or an account of profits made from the unauthorised use of the information.

Full Definition Of Breach Of Confidence

Breach of confidence is a common law tort which protects confidential information from being disclosed without permission. This doctrine is crucial in maintaining trust in various relationships, including those between employers and employees, clients and professionals, and in commercial partnerships. This overview will delve into the elements required to establish a breach of confidence, relevant case law, defences, remedies, and the impact of statutory law, including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Elements of Breach of Confidence

To establish a breach of confidence, three primary elements must be satisfied:

  • Confidential Information: The information must have the necessary quality of confidence.
  • Obligation of Confidence: The information must have been imparted in circumstances importing an obligation of confidence.
  • Unauthorised Use or Disclosure: There must be an unauthorised use or disclosure of that information to the detriment of the party who communicated it.

Confidential Information

For information to be deemed confidential, it must not be public knowledge. It should be specific and identifiable, not trivial. Examples include trade secrets, proprietary business information, and personal data.

Case Law Example: Coco v A.N. Clark (Engineers) Ltd [1969] RPC 41 is a foundational case where the court outlined the criteria for information to qualify as confidential. The case involved the misuse of technical information disclosed during negotiations for a potential business partnership.

Obligation of Confidence

An obligation of confidence arises in situations where a reasonable person would expect confidentiality. This can be explicit, such as through a non-disclosure agreement, or implied, based on the nature of the relationship.

Case Law Example: Attorney-General v Guardian Newspapers Ltd (No 2) [1990] 1 AC 109, also known as the “Spycatcher” case, illustrated that an obligation of confidence can arise from the circumstances in which information is communicated, even in the absence of an explicit agreement.

Unauthorised Use or Disclosure

The final element requires proving that the information was used or disclosed without consent, resulting in detriment to the claimant. Detriment does not necessarily have to be financial; it can also include reputational damage or other forms of harm.

Case Law Example: Douglas v Hello! [2001] QB 967 involved the unauthorised publication of wedding photos, where the court held that the breach of confidence caused emotional distress and was sufficient to establish detriment.

Defences to Breach of Confidence

Several defences can be invoked against a claim of breach of confidence:

  1. Public Interest: Disclosure may be justified if it is in the public interest. This defence balances the right to confidentiality against the need for transparency and accountability.
  2. Consent: If the information owner has given explicit permission for the disclosure, there can be no breach.
  3. Lack of Confidentiality: If the information is already public knowledge or lacks the necessary quality of confidence, this defence can be used.

Case Law Example: In Lion Laboratories Ltd v Evans [1985] QB 526, the court held that the disclosure of information about inaccuracies in breathalyser machines was in the public interest.

Remedies for Breach of Confidence

Various remedies are available to a claimant in a breach of confidence case:

  1. Injunctions: Courts can issue interim or permanent injunctions to prevent further disclosure.
  2. Damages: Financial compensation can be awarded for any loss suffered due to the breach.
  3. Account of Profits: The defendant may be ordered to account for any profits made from the misuse of confidential information.
  4. Delivery: The court may order the return or destruction of confidential documents.

Case Law Example: In Saltman Engineering Co Ltd v Campbell Engineering Co Ltd [1948] 65 RPC 203, the court awarded damages for the misuse of confidential information regarding the manufacturing process of leather punches.

Impact of Statutory Law: GDPR

The GDPR, implemented in the UK through the Data Protection Act 2018, has significant implications for the handling of confidential information, especially personal data. The GDPR emphasises the importance of consent, transparency, and the rights of individuals regarding their data.

Key Provisions

  • Lawfulness, Fairness, and Transparency: Personal data must be processed lawfully, fairly, and in a transparent manner.
  • Purpose Limitation: Data should be collected for specified, explicit, and legitimate purposes.
  • Data Minimization: Only the data necessary for the intended purpose should be collected and processed.
  • Accuracy: Data must be accurate and kept up-to-date.
  • Storage Limitation: Data should be retained only as long as necessary for the purposes for which it was collected.
  • Integrity and Confidentiality: Appropriate security measures must be in place to protect data.

Breach of GDPR and Confidentiality

A breach of GDPR can also constitute a breach of confidence if personal data is disclosed without consent or in violation of the data protection principles. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) can impose significant fines for non-compliance with GDPR, adding a statutory layer of protection to confidential information.

Case Law Example: In Google Inc. v Vidal-Hall [2015] EWCA Civ 311, the court recognized that misuse of private information can constitute a breach of the Data Protection Act, illustrating the interplay between data protection laws and the common law doctrine of breach of confidence.

Recent Developments and Trends

In recent years, the digital age has brought new challenges to the realm of confidential information. Cybersecurity threats, data breaches, and the ubiquitous nature of digital communication necessitate a modern approach to protecting confidentiality.

Cybersecurity

Companies must now implement robust cybersecurity measures to protect confidential information. Failure to do so can result in both legal liability and significant reputational damage.

Case Law Example: The Morrisons v Various Claimants [2020] UKSC 12 case, where the Supreme Court held that the company was not vicariously liable for an employee’s deliberate data breach. However, the case underscored the need for stringent internal controls and data protection policies.

Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs)

NDAs remain a vital tool in protecting confidential information, especially in commercial transactions and employment contexts. However, the enforceability of NDAs is subject to the same principles of confidentiality and must be balanced against public interest considerations.

Whistleblowing

The legal framework around whistleblowing also impacts breach of confidence claims. The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 protects employees who disclose information about wrongdoing in their organisation, provided the disclosure is in the public interest.

Case Law Example: Chesterton Global Ltd v Nurmohamed [2017] EWCA Civ 979, where the Court of Appeal upheld that the disclosure of financial mismanagement was in the public interest, highlighting the protective measures for whistleblowers.

Conclusion

Breach of confidence remains a critical area of law, evolving to meet the demands of the digital age and heightened awareness of data protection. By understanding the elements, defences, and remedies associated with breach of confidence, along with the impact of statutory regulations like GDPR, individuals and organisations can better navigate the complexities of maintaining confidentiality in today’s interconnected world.

Breach Of Confidence FAQ'S

Breach of confidence refers to the unauthorised disclosure or use of confidential information by a person who owes a duty of confidentiality to another party.

Confidential information can include trade secrets, business plans, customer lists, financial data, or any other information that is not publicly available and is of value to the owner.

Any person who has been entrusted with confidential information and breaches that trust by disclosing or using the information without authorization can be held liable for breach of confidence.

The consequences of a breach of confidence can vary depending on the circumstances, but they may include financial damages, injunctions to prevent further disclosure or use of the information, and even criminal charges in some cases.

Yes, an employer can be held vicariously liable for an employee’s breach of confidence if the employee was acting within the scope of their employment and in the course of their duties when the breach occurred.

While having a written confidentiality agreement can strengthen a claim of breach of confidence, it is not always necessary. The existence of a duty of confidence can be implied from the circumstances and the relationship between the parties.

Yes, if a former employee discloses or uses confidential information obtained during their employment with the intention of benefiting a competitor, a breach of confidence claim can be brought against them.

In some cases, a breach of confidence claim can be brought against a journalist who publishes confidential information if they obtained the information unlawfully or if they were aware that the information was confidential and published it without authorization.

Yes, a breach of confidence claim can be brought against a government agency or public body if they disclose or use confidential information without authorization, unless there are specific legal provisions that allow them to do so.

To prove a breach of confidence claim, it is necessary to establish that the information in question was confidential, that the defendant owed a duty of confidence, that the defendant breached that duty by disclosing or using the information without authorization, and that the claimant suffered harm as a result of the breach. Evidence such as written agreements, witness testimony, or circumstantial evidence can be used to support the claim.

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Disclaimer

This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 10th June 2024.

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