The Importance of Confidentiality

As a Legal Secretary, you will be aware that confidentiality is essential in the legal field. Issues concerning confidentiality arise when information is disclosed by one person to another in a situation where it could be reasonably expected that that information would not be disclosed to anyone else. Confidentiality is protected as a fundamental human right and is expected to be observed in a very extensive range of circumstances.

The ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights) states clearly in Article 8 that ‘everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence’. This means that only the individual in question may disclose personal information about his or her life. Article 8 of the ECHR goes on to explain that no public authority may intervene in obtaining this private information unless it is in the interest of ‘national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others’.

Common law in the United Kingdom states that if information is disclosed to a professional individual, such as a lawyer or doctor, it may be used only for the purpose for which it was intended. For example, medical professionals are expected to hold patients’ personal information and medical records in complete confidence. There are legal protections in place which prevent them from disclosing in court, even under oath, certain types of information and conversations that they have had with patients.

In order to protect a client’s confidentiality to the highest possible degree in a legal office, staff must not have conversations about their clients outside of the workplace, have conversations about a case in a public or crowded space in which they might be overheard, or leave any type of record or personal document in a place where it might be found and read by someone lacking the necessary authority to do so.

In order to protect confidentiality, the Data Protection Act was passed in 1998. This Act lays down rules and regulations surrounding the use of information concerning and identifying living individuals. The ‘use’ of this information could include recording, obtaining, holding and disclosing it without prior consent from the individual concerned. It protects personal information regardless of whether those details are held electronically or physically on paper. There was a sense of widespread relief when this Act finally came into force, as Britain was generally recognised to have adopted these official laws of protection far later than it should have done.

Probably the most well-known breach of confidentiality, in terms of the number of individuals who were affected, came in the form of the News International phone hacking scandal, which took place over the past two decades. Individuals working for News International were found to have been illegally gaining access to personal information about celebrities, politicians and victims of crime by hacking into their phones and computers as well as trying to entrap, bribe and extort different individuals. The most infamous incident in the whole of this scandal was the revelation that the corporation had hacked the voicemail of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler and had deleted messages which had been left there. This gave false hope to those conducting the investigation, misleading police enquiries and the Dowler family as they believed that Milly could have deleted those messages herself.

This one incident, just a small detail in a vast and extensive web of confidentiality breaches made by News International, proves the need for strict regulation over the protection and confidentiality of personal data.