Multi-national law firm Linklaters has obtained an injunction banning its former director of business development and marketing from passing media organisations or journalists information it says is confidential.
The company went to the High Court on Thursday last week and asked Mr Justice Warby for the order, saying that former business development and marketing director Frank Mellish had threatening to disclose material about what he had described as “the current culture at Linklaters” and the “ongoing struggle Linklaters has with women in the workplace”.
Mellish, whose employment was terminated in June last year, had e-mailed Linklaters’ senior partner and its firm-wide managing partner to warn them of his intention in January, a few days after receiving the final payment related to the end of his job.
It was this message which prompted the firm to go to court.
Linklaters told Mr Justice Warby that if Mellish, who was not at the hearing and was not represented, did disclose any of the information he had indicated he intended to do, he would be breaching an obligation of confidentiality imposed by his employment contract.
In his e-mail, Mellish had referred to three “specific examples”- the “Munich incident”, the “NY settlement” and the “London Settlement” – which he alleged would demonstrate the culture within the firm.
Linklaters said the injunction it wanted was needed to protect the identities of those concerned, although it was not seeking to stop Mellish from expressing his general views about its culture.
Mr Justice Warby said he was satisfied that the likelihood that Linklaters would succeed at a trial was sufficient to justify the order he had made.
“There was clear evidence of a threat or intention to give interviews for publication about matters that came to the attention of the defendant in the course of his employment,” he said.
“Whether that threat was likely to be carried out was unclear. But there was clear evidence of a risk.
“It may well be possible to speak publicly in general terms about the ‘culture’ at Linklaters, or any other large firm or organisation, without breaching duties of confidence.
“But although the defendant has claimed that he intends to observe his contractual obligations, it is not easy to see how he could do so if he were to illustrate his points by reference to the three areas which he specified in his correspondence.
“These all related to present or former employees or partners of Linklaters, and the information referred to was of an inherently sensitive and confidential nature.
“On the face of it, those matters all came firmly within the scope of clause 10 of the defendant’s contract of employment. None of the information in the 11 categories specified in the draft order was, on the evidence, in the public domain.”
The rights of the third parties involved, particularly those of the complainants, strengthened the case for granting an injunction, the judge said.
Internal grievance processes were confidential in nature, and those interviewed as part of such a process were entitled to expect that what they said would be kept confidential, the judge said.
He added: “There are strong policy reasons for upholding those legitimate expectations, to encourage genuine complainants to come forward rather than risk having sensitive material of the kind in issue here made public by a third party, against their wishes and (on the evidence) without consultation.”
Linklaters accepted that there was, in general terms, a legitimate public interest in large firms such as itself properly performing their social and moral duties towards their staff, Mr Justice Waby said.
He added: “But the existence of such an interest cannot justify indiscriminate disclosure of otherwise sensitive, confidential information which others have a legitimate interest in keeping confidential. A general desire to talk publicly about the ‘culture’ of a large firm is not enough to justify the disclosure of such details.”
The judge said he had also ordered Mellish to disclose the identity of any journalists, press or media organisations, agents or publicists or third party to whom he had passed all or any part of the Information with a view to publication.