On September 5, 2018, the compliance departments and outside counsel of large corporations operating in the UK breathed a collective sigh of relief. In a much anticipated ruling, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales overturned a trial judge’s order that would have compelled a London-based international mining company, Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation Limited (ENRC), to hand over documents to UK prosecutors investigating the enterprise for bribery in Kazakhstan and Africa. Those documents were the product of an investigation that ENRC’s outside legal counsel had conducted following an internal whistleblower report that surfaced in late 2010. In conducting that internal investigation, lawyers from the law firm interviewed witnesses, reviewed financial records, and advised ENRC’s management on the company’s possible criminal exposure. Though the company tried to keep everything quiet, the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) came knocking in mid-2011. The SFO agreed to let ENRC and its lawyers continue to investigate on their own, periodically updating the SFO on their progress. In 2013, ENRC’s legal counsel submitted its findings to the SFO in a report arguing that, on the basis of the facts presented, the company should not be charged. The SFO disagreed and launched a formal criminal investigation. But the SFO then also demanded that ENRC turn over all of the files and documents underpinning its report—including presentations given by the lawyers to ENRC’s management and the lawyers’ notes from their interviews with 184 potential witnesses.
ENRC refused to comply, claiming that these documents were covered by two legal privileges under UK law: the “litigation privilege,” which guarantees the confidentiality of documents created by lawyers for the “dominant purpose” of adversarial litigation (including prosecution) that is “in reasonable contemplation,” and the “legal advice privilege,” which protects communications between lawyers and clients exchanged for legal advice. The trial court rejected ENRC’s privilege claims, a decision that sent shockwaves through the English defense bar and spurred much criticism on legal and policy grounds. But the Court of Appeal reversed, holding that ENRC’s lawyers didn’t have to share the documents. The Court’s ruling relied on the litigation privilege, holding, first, that documents created to help avoid criminal prosecution counted as those created for the “dominant purpose” of litigation, and, second, that criminal legal proceedings were in “reasonable contemplation” for ENRC once the SFO contacted the company in 2011.
Many commentators have hailed the Appeal Court’s decision (which the SFO declined to appeal) as a “landmark ruling” and a “decisive victory” for defense lawyers. The reality is a bit more nuanced. The Court of Appeal’s fact-specific ruling was very conservative in its legal conclusions, and it’s unlikely that its holding regarding the litigation privilege is sufficient to create the right incentives for companies and their lawyers. It’s also unlikely that further judicial tinkering with the scope of the litigation privilege will resolve the problem promptly or satisfactorily. The better solution would involve a different institutional actor and a different privilege: Parliament should step in and expand the scope of the legal advice privilege to cover all communications between a company’s lawyers and the company’s current and former employees. Continue reading