Thursday, 12 February 2015

WA Supreme Court delivers explicit message on privacy: compensation awarded to Facebook post victim

A woman who was the subject of sexually explicit social media posts by her ex-boyfriend has been awarded almost $50,000 in damages, in a further development of the protection of privacy in Australia.

The facts

In the recent case of Wilson v Ferguson, the plaintiff claimed that her former partner had breached an equitable duty of confidence by posting sexually explicit photographs and videos of her on the internet.

The couple had sent each other explicit photographs over the course of their relationship.  The defendant also took naked photographs of the plaintiff with her consent.  On one occasion, the defendant accessed the plaintiff's phone without her permission and emailed himself videos of the plaintiff engaging in sexual activity.

Following the break-down of the relationship, the defendant posted 16 explicit photographs and two videos of the plaintiff on his Facebook page, along with offensive comments.  The images were accessible to hundreds of the defendant's 'Facebook friends' - many of whom also knew the plaintiff - before they were removed several hours later.


The Supreme Court of Western Australia found that the defendant had breached an equitable duty of confidence owed to the plaintiff.  The elements for succeeding in an action for breach of confidence are:

  • the information in question was of a confidential nature (i.e., not widely known);
  • the information was communicated or obtained in circumstances importing an obligation of confidence; and
  • the information was used or disclosed without authorisation.

The Court found that where a person shares intimate photographs in the context of a relationship, it is ordinarily on the implied condition that the photographs are to be kept confidential.  In this case, the plaintiff's expectation that the material be kept private was confirmed in her conversations with the defendant.  The Court also found that by accessing sexually explicit videos from the plaintiff's phone without her knowledge, the defendant was placed under a duty to keep those videos confidential.  The Court was satisfied that posting the material on Facebook was a clear misuse of the confidential information.

A new avenue of redress for victims?

While there are numerous criminal offences which involve breaches of privacy (such as stalking, the use of surveillance devices and the interception of telecommunications), the common law action for breach of privacy remains relatively undeveloped in Australia.   As recently reported by the Australian Law Reform Commission, this means there are limited avenues of redress for persons who have suffered from serious intrusions on their privacy.

Plaintiffs have occasionally brought actions for breach of confidence, where the usual remedy is an injunction to prevent the publication, or further publication, of the confidential information.  Equitable damages have traditionally been awarded for economic loss, but not for distress that falls short of a psychiatric injury.  Accordingly, this cause of action has not been seen as useful for plaintiffs who suffer embarrassment, but no financial harm.

Importantly, in Wilson v Ferguson, the Court not only granted an injunction preventing the defendant from republishing the explicit images of the plaintiff, but also awarded equitable damages of $35,000 to the plaintiff as compensation for the distress caused by the dissemination of the images.  The Court expressly relied upon the 2008 Victorian Court of Appeal decision of Giller v Procopets  in determining that such damages were available.  The defendant was ordered to pay a further $13,404 in equitable damages for economic loss, to cover the plaintiff's time off work following the incident.

As such, this case represents a potentially significant precedent on the award of equitable damages for emotional distress for the misuse of personal information.  If the decision is followed, bringing a legal action for breach of confidence may become a far more attractive avenue of redress for people who have suffered from serious invasions of their privacy where there was an obligation of confidentiality.

A cautionary tale of the use of technology…

One of the Court's key reasons for expanding the award of equitable damages was the recognition that the law needs to keep pace with the use of technology on modern society. As Justice Mitchell remarked, it is not uncommon for people in relationships to use mobile phones to share intimate communications, and the internet is an easily accessible platform to disseminate those communications with the world.  Although the explicit images in this case were removed from the defendant's Facebook page just hours after being posted, the damage had already been done.  The award of almost $50,000 damages against the defendant comes as a timely reminder that comments and postings made online in the spur-of the-moment can have far-reaching 'real world' consequences.

For information on privacy law and related criminal offences, please contact:

Louise Jarrett
Acting Managing Principal Solicitor 

Amy Galeotti

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Operation Fitzroy - learnings for integrity in procurement practices

Between September 2013 and October 2014, IBAC conducted an extensive investigation into alleged serious corrupt conduct by employees of a government department and statutory authority.

The investigation, dubbed 'Operation Fitzroy', involved 15 current and former public officials and government contractors being called to evidence during a series of public examinations conducted in the County Court of Victoria in mid-2014. These were the first such examinations conducted by IBAC since its establishment in 2012.

The IBAC report identifies a need for the Victorian public sector to learn from the findings of Operation Fitzroy and to strengthen measures to ensure integrity in public procurement.

As another year begins, it is timely for government agencies and departments to reflect on the findings of the IBAC report and consider whether their own existing procurement practices are adequate to safeguard against corruption.

Lessons from Operation Fitzroy

Public sector organisations are entrusted with a significant responsibility for public expenditure. With this comes an obligation to have robust measures in place to ensure integrity in procurement practices.

Solid organisational processes, and a good organisational culture, are cornerstones of good procurement practice.

The IBAC report identified a number of factors as contributing to corruption risks. Ensuring that departments and agencies have robust practices in the following areas will help protect against corrupt conduct and ensure integrity in procurement practices.

  1. Contract management. Good contract management practices are essential to managing corruption risks. It is good practice, for example, to continue to monitor projects once a tender process is finished and a contract awarded. Adequate performance monitoring, which continues beyond a tender process, may assist in detecting corrupt practices. Controls over sub-contracting arrangements are also important.
  2. Supplier due diligence. Due diligence must be conducted on suppliers who are awarded contracts. This enables departments to investigate any connections between individuals within the department, and companies that are being awarded contracts. There should be controls to ensure that suppliers have the necessary skills, qualifications, financial viability and experience to deliver the required goods and services. This will help ensure that value for money is achieved in government procurement practices.
  3. Training and expertise. Government employees with procurement responsibilities must have appropriate training, experience and adequate technical knowledge about the goods or services being procured. There should be ongoing processes for employees and contractors to raise concerns about procurement misconduct and corruption. There should also be ongoing education and training for all relevant employees regarding procurement policies and procedures, as well as associated corruption risks, and mechanisms to engage with suppliers regarding procurement policies and procedures, probity obligations, standards and requirements.
  4. Management of conflicts of interest. Departments must ensure that there are appropriate processes in place to manage conflicts of interest. This could include, for example, a register of interests in which department employees regularly record any relevant interests, training for identifying when conflicts of interests occur, and processes for referring contentious or difficult conflict of interest issues to management.
  5. Management of procurement staff. Managers of procurement officers must be appropriately trained in managing conflicts of interest and other corruption risks, and have appropriate managerial expertise. This will ensure that procurement staff are adequately supervised, and that staff activities are monitored and checked. It will also mean that red flags, which may indicate that improper or corrupt practices are occurring, are identified and acted upon sooner, rather than later. There must also be accountability of those at management level.
  6. Recruitment of management staff. There should be processes for screening prospective employees in potentially high-risk positions relating to finance and procurement, and re-screening regularly for appointed employees.
  7. Timeframes for delivery of projects. Tight timeframes and a culture of expediency may create corruption risks related to procurement planning, compliance and scrutiny of decisions. Regarding procurement policies as subservient to delivering significant programs of work as quickly as possible may lead to non-compliant or improper behaviour. The tension between meeting project delivery requirements and complying with procurement policies and processes must be monitored and managed appropriately.

The VGSO has a long-standing practice in public sector integrity, government procurement and public sector governance. We can assist you to ensure that your department or agency is protected against corruption risks, and conducts its procurement activities appropriately. With extensive expertise in public sector integrity processes, we can also provide advice and assistance with respect to department and agency responses to inquiries by bodies such as IBAC.

 For queries relating to any of the issues identified in this blog, please contact:

Julie Freeman
Assistant Victorian Government Solicitor
9947 1404

Alison O'Brien
Assistant Victorian Government Solicitor
8684 0416

Sophia Angelis

Handy resources for procurement