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Employment Law

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Veale Wasborough Vizards , 28 APR 2016

Court finds former warship captain had no reasonable expectation of privacy

Court finds former warship captain had no reasonable expectation of privacy
Michael Halsey
Partner, Veale Wasbrough Vizards

In Axon v Ministry of Defence (MOD) and News Group Newspapers Ltd (NGN), the High Court dismissed Mr Axon's claim for misuse of private information and/or breach of confidence, as he had held a role in a very public position and could have no reasonable expectation of privacy.

The facts

Following an equal opportunities investigation in 2004, Mr Axon, the Commanding Officer of a Royal Navy frigate, was found to have bullied junior officers and was removed from his command. The story was leaked to the press and there was a great deal of media interest in the story at the time.

In 2013, NGN disclosed that it had paid an employee of the MOD (who worked in the MOD's media team) for a number of stories, including those involving Mr Axon. The employee responsible for leaking the information was later convicted of the criminal offence of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office.

The court's decision

Mr Axon subsequently issued proceedings against the MOD, alleging that it had misused private information about him. This is something that individuals can claim compensation for, in light of the right to a private and family life enshrined in the Human Rights Act and developments in case-law, particularly the famous case of Campbell v MGN Ltd in 2004. Mr Axon alleged the MOD was vicariously liable for the acts of its employee.

Mr Axon's claim failed because he was not able to show that the information disclosed to the press fell within the ambit of his 'private life'. In the rare circumstances of this case, and as a commander of a frigate in the Royal Navy, he held a very public position and, looked at objectively, he did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the information that was disclosed.

Best practice

It is rare for employees to bring cases alleging the misuse of private information, and this case should not be seen as a green light for employers to make public information concerning disciplinary action. In the vast majority of cases it will be prudent to maintain confidentiality, if at all possible.

Interestingly, had Mr Axon's claim succeeded, the MOD would have been vicariously liable for the original information leak, despite this being contrary to the purposes of the employee's employment in the media team. There was a sufficiently close connection between the leaking of the information and the work of the employee.

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