Those who steal their employers' confidential information can expect to feel the full force of the law – but what if they claim to be whistleblowers acting in the public interest? The High Court confronted exactly that issue in a guideline case.

The case concerned an IT specialist who was alleged to have hacked into his former employer's computer system following his summary dismissal, downloading a large volume of the company's confidential information. The company alleged that that amounted to a breach of his employment contract and a criminal offence. After launching proceedings against him, it sought a pre-trial injunction requiring him to deliver up or destroy any confidential information that was in his possession.

The man, however, argued that he had acted not for personal gain but with a view to exposing unlawful and criminal conduct on the company's part. He claimed to be assisting public authorities in investigating the company's activities and that its managing director had sought to discredit and silence him.

In ruling on the matter, the Court noted the valuable role in society played by whistleblowers and that the man's human right to freedom of expression was potentially engaged. There was evidence indicating that his allegations were not fanciful and there were cases in which the public interest in disclosing information trumped the public interest in preserving confidentiality.

In issuing an injunction, the Court found that the company would probably succeed at trial in establishing that the man would otherwise be likely to make use of its confidential information. Notwithstanding his public interest defence, the order restrained him from publishing the information to third parties or the world at large.

However, the injunction neither required him to deliver up or destroy the information nor prevented him from responding to requests from public authorities for further information or documents concerning the company. The order was extended to the man's wife, who had also worked for the company and was alleged to have had access to its confidential information.

Please contact Julian Milan on 0808 166 8827 or email him on j.milan@sydneymitchell.co.uk for advice on any data protection matter.

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