COURT OF APPEAL DECISION IN ENRC: ORTHODOXY RESTORED ON LITIGATION PRIVILEGE, BUT NARROW INTERPRETATION OF “CLIENT” REMAINS FOR NOW

The Court of Appeal has handed down its eagerly awaited decision in the ENRC appeal: The Director of the Serious Fraud Office v Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation Ltd [2018] EWCA Civ 2006. At first instance, the High Court took a restrictive approach to both litigation privilege and legal advice privilege (see our summary of the decision here). The Court of Appeal has allowed the appeal on the question of litigation privilege but has, with apparent reluctance, dismissed the appeal on legal advice privilege, concluding it is a matter for the Supreme Court.

In relation to litigation privilege, the Court of Appeal has, helpfully, disagreed with the High Court’s overly strict approach to whether documents have been prepared for the dominant purpose of litigation. The High Court found that, where ENRC’s purpose was to investigate allegations made by a whistleblower, this was not sufficient to meet the dominant purpose test. The Court of Appeal disagreed, finding that this was all part and parcel of preventing or defending litigation. It also disagreed with the High Court’s problematic view that documents prepared in order to avoid contemplated litigation were not covered by litigation privilege. In the Court of Appeal’s judgment, the purpose of avoiding or settling proceedings is covered by litigation privilege, just as the purpose of resisting or defending them.

In relation to legal advice privilege, the Court of Appeal considered itself bound by Three Rivers No 5 to find that the privilege is limited to communications between a lawyer and those tasked with seeking and receiving advice on behalf of the client company. In other words, it agreed with the judge’s interpretation of the effect of Three Rivers No 5 [2003] QB 1556, as also arrived at by Hildyard J in the The RBS Rights Issue Litigation [2016] EWHC 3161 (Ch) (considered here).

However, the court said that, if it had been open to it to depart from Three Rivers No 5, it would have been in favour of doing so. This was in part because, in the Court of Appeal’s view, the decision puts large corporations at a disadvantage, when it comes to legal advice privilege, compared to individuals and small corporations. Those tasked with seeking legal advice on behalf of a large corporation are less likely to have the relevant factual information, and will therefore have to rely on employees whose communications with the lawyers will not, on the reasoning in Three Rivers No 5, be covered by privilege (unless litigation privilege applies). The Court of Appeal also accepted that English law is out of step with international common law on this issue, which it considered undesirable. However, it said the matter would have to be considered again by the Supreme Court in this or an appropriate future case.

Julian Copeman, Anna Pertoldi and Maura McIntosh consider the decision further here.

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