High Court decision potentially extends exceptions to without prejudice protection

In a recent decision, the High Court has found that documents relating to negotiations regarding recoverable litigation costs had to be disclosed to a third party (the claimant in the present action) who had an interest in the outcome of the negotiations: EMW Law LLP v Halborg [2017] EWHC 1014.

The documents could normally have been withheld on the basis of the without prejudice ("WP") rule, which (in general) prevents negotiations genuinely aimed at settlement from being admitted in evidence in proceedings. However, the judge found that exceptions to the WP rule applied in this case, essentially on the basis that justice clearly demanded that an exception be made as there was a live issue as to whether the negotiations had led to a concluded settlement and that issue could not be determined without access to the documents.

The decision may be seen to expand existing exceptions to the WP rule. Although there is a recognised exception where documents are relevant to whether a concluded agreement has been reached, in previous cases it had been one of the parties to the litigation who alleged that an agreement had been reached. Here that question was put in issue by a stranger to the negotiations. The judge was also prepared to craft a new exception by analogy to the (much-criticised) exception established in Muller v Linsley & Mortimer [1996] 1 PNLR 74, where the WP communications were relevant to whether a party had reasonably mitigated his loss in negotiating a compromise of separate proceedings.

Although the issues in this case did not arise in the context of a mediation or other formal ADR process, they could potentially apply equally in that context. However, it is worth bearing in mind that, particularly in such formal ADR contexts, it is in practice very rare for the WP status of the discussions to subsequently be challenged and even more so for the challenge to be successful.  The courts' approach to the exceptions to WP could be expected to continue to be one of applying the exceptions narrowly and preventing erosions of the protection, to avoid undermining the policy of encouraging settlement discussions.

Click here to read more on the decision on our 'Litigation Notes' blog.

 

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