In the course of discovery in a commercial dispute involving some 60,000 documents, the ERA Group’s solicitors mistakenly provided Armstrong’s solicitors with documents that were confidential and subject to client legal privilege.
ERA Group’s solicitors then sought return of the material and an undertaking from Armstrong’s solicitors not to use the privileged material in the litigation. But Armstrong’s solicitors refused to return the documents, arguing that the privilege attaching to the documents had been waived.
The trial judge found for the ERA Group and ordered return of the documents. But the Court of Appeal sided with Armstrong. The High Court overturned that decision with a very clear message about lawyers’ professional and ethical obligations to support the proper administration of justice.
In doing so, it noted that mistakes are more likely to occur in discovery in ‘heavy litigation conducted by large teams of lawyers of varying experience and the indiscriminate use of photocopying’ so the good faith of the parties is paramount in such matters.
The Court noted that the new Australian Solicitor’s Conduct Rules (not yet incorporated in Victoria) require a solicitor to return material which is known or reasonably suspected to be confidential, where the solicitor is aware that its disclosure was inadvertent.
The Court suggested "such a rule should not be necessary," as "in the not too distant past it was understood that acting in this way obviates unnecessary and costly interlocutory applications… It is an example of professional, ethical obligations of legal practitioners supporting the objectives of the proper administration of justice.”
It is a fundamental principle of legal professional practice that, as lawyers, our duty to the court trumps all of our other duties. Fortunately, such behavior is rare in government lawyers as they must also follow the Model Litigant Guidelines. These require government litigants to (amongst other things):
- act fairly in litigation
- not cause unnecessary delay
- keep litigation costs to a minimum.
But this reminder by the High Court to think twice about adopting a win-at-all-costs approach is still a useful read for government lawyers, even just for the reminder to do one last proofread before hitting ‘send’…
If you are in the Victorian Government and would like advice on the ethical obligations applicable to government litigants, please contact:
General Counsel (Litigation)
t 8684 0458