Inauspicious start for the UK Trade Secrets Regulations at IPEC

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Trailfinders v Travel Counsellors [2020] EWHC 591 (IPEC) represented the first opportunity for judicial scrutiny of the UK Trade Secrets (Enforcement, etc.) Regulations 2018 (SI 2018/597).

The approach adopted by HH Judge Hacon was provisions of the EU Directive on the protection of undisclosed know-how and business information (trade secrets) against their unlawful acquisition, use and disclosure (EU Dir. 2016/943), especially Chapter II and Articles 6, 7 and 16, had already been implemented – without the need for these Regulations – into our law under common law and equity. Hacon J accordingly, “assumed that the substantive principles governing the protection of confidential information under English law, including that afforded by terms implied into contracts of employment and by equitable obligations of confidence, are unaffected by the Directive. However, the Directive shines an occasional light on those principles.[para.9]

In particular, Hacon J found,”the best guide to the distinction between information which is confidential and that which is not is now to be found in the definition of ‘trade secret’ in Article 2(1) of the Directive 2016/943.[para.29]

This would imply that the established three stage common law test for confidentiality of: (1) the information itself must have the necessary quality of confidence; (2) the information must have been imparted in circumstances importing an obligation of confidence (either expressly, or which ought reasonably to have been understood by the recipient) and; (3) there must be an unauthorised use of that information to the detriment of the rights holder; now needs to be updated in line with the new statutory definition of a ‘trade secret’ being information which: (1) is secret in the sense that it is not, as a body or in the precise configuration and assembly of its components, generally known among, or readily accessible to, persons within the circles that normally deal with the kind of information in question; (2) has commercial value because it is secret, and; (3) has been subject to reasonable steps under the circumstances, by the person lawfully in control of the information, to keep it secret.

However, the difficulties inherent within this interplay between the new statutory definition of a ‘trade secret’ and the old common principles of confidentiality can be illustrated by Hacon J’s legal treatment of the two terms, ‘secret’ and ‘reasonable steps’.

Secret

The preamble to the EU Trade Secrets Directive makes clear that its definition, “excludes trivial information and the experience and skills gained by employees in the normal course of their employment, and also excludes information which is generally known among, or is readily accessible to, persons within the circles that normally deal with the kind of information in question.” [para.14]

Mr La Gette and Mr Bishop as the defendants in this case had argued that Trailfinder’s information on clients’ names, nationalities, interests, contact details and past bookings was already in the public domain and was therefore ‘readily accessible’ to them. Trailfinders held this client information on two systems: Viewtrail was an online portal used to record booking details and Superfacts was a software system which recorded information about clients. Bishop had admitted using the Superfacts system to assemble, for about six months before he left Trailfinders, a ‘contact book’ about clients and both he and La Gette admitted accessing Viewtrail after they had left Trailfinders.

Hacon J took the view that the Trailfinder information had met the statutory threshold for being ‘secret’ but went further adding, “Lewison LJ observed in Force India Formula One Team Ltd v Aerolab Srl [2013] EWCA Civ 780; [2013] RPC 36 (with whom Briggs LJ and Sir Stanley Burton agreed): It is certainly not a defence [to an allegation of breach of confidence] that the person in breach of confidence could have obtained the information elsewhere if he did not in fact do so.(at [72]) [para.35]

Reasonable Steps

Wearing the ‘clean hands’ spectacles demanded of equity Hacon J felt able to find that although, “[T]he protection may not have been as rigorous as it should have been [but] Trailfinders clearly took steps to ensure that the Client Information was not openly available to anyone by requiring the use of a password or, in the case of Viewtrail, limiting access to information to clients only if their name and booking reference was known”. [para.73]

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This approach would appear to be at variance with that adopted by judicial counterparts in the USA, who, whilst not requiring of perfection, on the whole would take a dim view of any failure on the part of a holder of trade secrets not to identify and label confidential information as such, nor take any steps to restrict ex-employee online access. It is worthy of note that the origins for the broad definition for a ‘trade secret’ under the UK Regulations ultimately lies within American jurisprudence, where State and now Federal Courts have had decades of experience in its interpretation.

The issue may lay in the fact that Hacon J categorised the confidential information at play in this case as class 2 information acquired during the normal course of employment which remains in the employee’s head and becomes part of his own experience and skills (not class 3 information, namely specific ‘trade secrets’ requiring of a higher degree of confidentiality) – see Goulding J’s classification in Faccenda Chicken Ltd v Fowler [1985] 1 All ER 724, albeit the Court of Appeal ultimately differed with Goulding J’s analysis of where to draw the line between classes 2 and 3. This begs the unanswered question, would Hacon J have demanded more in the way of ‘reasonable steps’ from Trailfinders had he categorised the confidential information as class 3?

Given the EU Trade Secrets Directive does not replace English common law, the overall effect was said to be that a UK trade secret holder could apply for remedies under the common law of confidentiality either in addition, or as an alternative, to the remedies provided under the Trade Secrets Regulations (i.e. in instances where the English common law provided for ‘wider remedies’ – Regulation 3). It will be interesting to see in the future whether our more senior judicial brethren continue to follow Hacon J’s approach of an interplay between the two. But for the time being at least the new Trade Secrets Regulations, and Regulation 2 in particular, can (merely) be viewed as an aid to common law interpretation, illuminating what information now has ‘the necessary quality of confidence’ under both classes 2 and 3, as categorised in the Faccenda Chicken case.

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