The Court of Appeal has held that a company was entitled to an order requiring its former Chief Executive Officer to provide access to the content of e-mails relating to its business affairs which were stored on his personal computer. The e-mails had been sent and received as agent for the company, and the fact that they were in electronic rather than paper form did not affect the company’s right as principal to inspect their contents: Fairstar Heavy Transport NV v Adkins [2013] EWCA Civ 886.

The court overturned the first instance decision of Edwards-Stuart J, which had determined as a preliminary issue that the company did not have an “enforceable proprietary claim” to the content of the e-mails. This was based on the judge’s finding that there is no property right in the contents of an e-mail (see our post on the first instance decision).

The Court of Appeal said that the reference to a “proprietary right” in the agreed wording of the preliminary issue was a distraction from the central issue, which was the rights of a principal against its former agent. It was not necessary for the purposes of the appeal to determine whether there could be property rights in the contents of an e-mail. The court declined to enter into that controversy, saying that it would be unwise for the court to endorse the proposition that there could never be property in information.