Breach of confidence is a common law tort which allows individuals or businesses to go to civil court to protect secret or commercially sensitive information. The law aims to prevent people to whom the information has been divulged in confidence from using it to gain an unfair benefit.
For information to be shown to be confidential and to establish that a breach of confidence has occurred, it needs to be shown that:
A breach of confidentiality can arise in a number of situations where the confidential information has been divulged to a third party to the detriment of the owner, including where the information involved:
For the information to be considered confidential it must appear to have a confidential quality to it. A good indicator of whether information is confidential is whether it is labelled as such on the outside of a folder or if it contains a confidential watermark running through it. This, however, is by no means the sole reason which information will be held to be confidential – other factors need to be considered.
In areas such as patents or the registering of designs, certain information becoming public knowledge prior to the patent or design being registered would have huge consequences for the application. In a case such as this, the information would be treated clearly as confidential due to the nature of the outcome of that information being released to the public domain.
When secret information is dealt with in a commercial setting it is usually the case that an obligation of confidence is enforced by an express contractual provision. These are called non-disclosure agreements and are a standard business practice across many different fields.
If the obligation of confidence is not expressly provided, there will in certain cases be an implied duty of confidence. An example of where this would arise is in an employment setting, as employees are considered to owe an implied duty of confidence concerning trade secrets and such like to their employers.
Information may be supplied to a third party so that party can do a specific task; for example, personal information may be passed to an employee of a company so they can enter the data into the company computer system. If they were to do just that, this would be authorised use of the information.
If that person was to use the information for any other purpose, such as disclosing it to others, that would constitute an unauthorised use of the information and they would be found guilty of breach of confidence.
The following remedies are available when a successful action for breach of confidence has been brought:
There are three situations where making disclosure of confidential information is lawful. These are:
Nicola is a dual qualified journalist and non-practising solicitor. She is a legal journalist, editor and author with more than 20 years' experience writing about the law.
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