The High Court in the case of Standard Life Assurance Ltd and another v Topland Col Ltd and others  EWHC 1781 (Ch) considered the extent to which documents disclosed by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) in the course of its statutory powers under section 3(5)(c) of the Criminal Justice Act 1987 (CJA 1987) can be used in civil proceedings.
The case concerned the lease and subsequent sale of one of the claimant's properties. The SFO investigated the sale of the property but eventually discontinued their investigation. In the course of the SFO's investigations, it interviewed an individual from the claimant who was provided with a pack of confidential pre-interview documents by the SFO (SFO Pack). The claimant sought to rely on the SFO Pack in subsequent civil proceedings commenced against the defendants. The defendants sought to strike out the civil proceedings as an abuse of process by virtue of their reliance on the SFO Pack, and sought injunctive relief to restrict the claimant's disclosure of these documents.
Whilst the High Court acknowledged that generally the SFO is not entitled to disclose any material obtained by it except for the purposes of criminal investigations/proceedings and that both the SFO and the recipient were clearly constrained in the use which they could make of documents or information they had obtained, it refused the defendant's application for a strike out and injunctive relief on the following basis:
- The disclosure of documents did not give rise to any implied undertaking on the part of the SFO to court not to use the documents for any other purpose. In addition, merely receiving the documents through one of the gateways in section 3 of the CJA 1987, did not give rise to an implied obligation on the part of the recipient to court not to use the documents for any other purpose.
- Accordingly, there was no contempt of court and no abuse of process in the mere use in civil proceedings by the recipient of documents or information from the SFO (at least before the commencement of any criminal proceedings) obtained by the SFO pursuant to its statutory powers.
- Whilst a party who is compelled to disclose documents as part of a criminal investigation should have their confidence and privacy preserved, it was necessary to balance this public interest with the public interest of ensuring a fair trial on the basis of full evidence. In balancing these interests, the court noted that some of the information contained in the SFO Pack was in the public domain, and the SFO Pack itself would fall within the scope of disclosure obligations in the course of the civil proceedings.
- As such, the defendants were not entitled to assert confidentiality in any of the documents in the SFO Pack so as to prevent the claimant from using their contents in support of their claims against the defendants. However, it was not appropriate for the court to grant an order that the claimant be permitted to use the SFO Pack. If any document was subject to a duty of confidentiality, it would be for the relevant third party to seek an injunction to prevent disclosure on the basis of confidentiality.