Johnson v Home Office

Reference: 26/06/2003

Court: Doncaster County Court

Judge: Recorder Lodge QC

Date of judgment: 26 Jun 2003

Summary: Breach of Confidence - Damage to Reputation - Public Interest Defence - Negligence - Proximity - Foreseeability - Remoteness of Damage -Trial

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Appearances: Christina Michalos QC (Defendant) 

Instructing Solicitors: Treasury Solicitor

Facts

C was a mental health social worker and the social supervisor of W. W had been found not guilty by reason of insanity of murdering his daughter & detained in a secure psychiatric hospital. He was later conditionally discharged on various terms including being under social supervision. W applied to the Mental Health Review Tribunal for absolute discharge. In 1995, C under statutory requirements prepared a report. It had a page marked Strictly Confidential and was sent to the D. Some information in that report was included by the Home Office in a later statement prepared for a further MHRT application (which W was entitled to see). Possibly alerted to C’s 1995 report by the Home Office report, W obtained a copy of C’s report from unknown sources. W’s relationship with C broke down. He became agressive & hostile towards C. C brought an action for breach of confidence claiming she suffered psychiatric damage & damage to her reputation, that her standing in the black community suffered.

Issue

Breach of Confidence:
(1) Did C have a right to sue for breach of confidence?
(2) If D owed a duty of confidence to C, was it in breach by including the information in its report?
(3) Was the damage too remote?
Negligence:
(4) Did the D owe C a duty of care under the Caparo Industries v Dickman test?
(5) If so was it breached and was their damage caused to C by that breach.

Held

Dismissing the claim (i) that C had no right of confidence. The information in issue had been imparted to C by W’s parents who did not want W to know what had been said. The right of confidence was that of W’s parents. C had a duty to the MHRT to prepare a report. (ii) The third element of the Coco v Clark test (that the unauthorised use must be to the detriment of the party communicating it) was not met.
(iii) there was proximity between the parties such as to establish a duty of care and it was fair and reasonable to impose a duty of care on D (iv) the claim that C suffered damage by merely learning that confidential information had been disclosed to W was too remote and there had been no physical threat to her. (v) the claim for loss of standing in the Afro-Caribbean community was not made out on the evidence and in any event was too remote.

Comment

The information in issue was given by W’s parents to C in confidence. W’s parents did not want W to know what they had said. The decision is interesting for the strict application of Coco v Clark [1969] RPC 41. It was held, following Fraser v Evans [1969] 1 QB 349 that the party complaining must be the person who is entitled to the confidence which was not W. In addition, the damage was held to be too remote.