Legal update: Employer is granted an injunction to copy and view employee’s personal computers to protect their confidential database

17 June 2014

The High Court recently granted a mandatory injunction in favour of a not for profit fuel company, Warm Zones, against two of their ex-employees, Sophie Thurley (ST) and Alex Buckley (AB) to allow their personal computers to be copied and viewed after the court agreed that there was a substantial risk that ST and AB had, and would continue to use Warm Zones’ confidential information.  Such mandatory injunctions are rarely made, especially with regards to individual’s personal property, as there is a significant risk of injustice if the claimant fails to prove their case at trial.

ST and AB left Warm Zones in 2013 and went to work for a competing business. The application was only made by the claimant after the competing company disclosed emails to the claimant which suggested that ST and AB had used information contained in a database of Warm Zones during their employment with the competitor. The database contained details of 87,000 households in the North Staffordshire area, identifying which households would be eligible for various fuel scheme funding.

AB argued that the information contained in the database could be obtained by using other sources e.g.  google maps and the national census. The judge dismissed this argument and stated that the database itself was protected as significant time and resources had gone into creating and maintaining it and the information contained in the database would be highly valuable to a competitor.
Interestingly, this application was made in the middle of Employment Tribunal proceedings between ST and Warm Zones. ST and AB agreed that the submissions made by Warm Zones raised a serious question to be tried at a hearing but allowing their personal computers to be viewed could potentially give Warm Zones access to legally privileged documents pertaining to the Employment Tribunal proceedings. Warm Zones submitted that they would bear the cost of an independent solicitor to view the material on the computers to ensure that any legally privileged documents were not disclosed to Warm Zones. ST and AB submitted that sworn affidavit evidence from them and delivery up of any documents would be sufficient to meet Warm Zones concerns.  The Judge did not accept this, and found that Warm Zones instructing an independent solicitor to review the documents which could be legally privileged in respect of ST’s Employment Tribunal claim against Warm Zones would deal with any potential concerns.

What can employers learn from this case? The judge commended the claimant on their requested injunction, stating that it was focused and designed simply to secure the “return, protection and security” of its confidential information. Whilst employers may be tempted to apply for a wide and far reaching order, it is more likely to be viewed as a ‘fishing’ exercise by the court. It is worthwhile to keep the judge’s comments in mind and an order is more likely to be granted if the claimant keeps the order simple and focused on dealing with the specific risk at hand.

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