Interesting guidance on confidentiality of commercial secrets in procurement litigation issued by the TCC


In July 2017, the Technology and Construction Court (a sub-division of the Queen's Bench Division, part of the High Court of Justice for England and Wales) adopted new guidance on procedures for public procurement litigation (see Appendix H to the Technology and Construction Court Guide; the TCC guidance).

The TCC guidance includes two interesting sets of recommendations. One concerns an invitation to exhaust the possibilities for alternative dispute resolution before proceeding to full-fledged litigation (see paras [4] to [8]). The other concerns the disclosure of confidential information between the parties of the dispute (see paras [27] to [48]).

The latter is an issue that raises difficult problems for the protection of business secrets, and I find the TCC guidance interesting in the balance it tries to achieve between ensuring that disappointed tenderers gain access to the information they need to support their claims, and the broader considerations surrounding the need to ensure adequate protection of business secrets in order not to deter participation in public tenders (which is a tricky issue facing all EU jurisdictions, including the rules applicable to procurement carried out by the EU Institutions, and on which we are concentrating in the on-going research of the EPLG).

As the TCC guidance puts it, indeed, "[c]onfidentiality is not a bar to disclosure. However, the need to protect confidential information needs to be balanced by the basic principle of open justice", at para [27]. The TCC guidance aims to achieve such balance through practical approaches and general criteria for the balancing of interests. The approaches adopted by the TCC have been praised for being less restrictive than some of the decisions previously adopted in the context of procurement litigation in England and Wales (Kotsonis & Williams). 

In my view, beyond the effects it can have in litigation in England and Wales, the TCC guidance can be useful as a benchmark for the treatment of confidential information in other jurisdictions -- provided that the practical solutions that derive from the peculiarities of the British legal culture are adapted to domestic idiosyncrasies.

In particular, there are three aspects that I would identify as best practice susceptible of replication or adaptation in other legal contexts:

1. Promotion of the use of redacted versions of documentation rather than absolute bans on the disclosure of materials, as the use of redacted documents enables documents to be more widely disclosable (see paras [32]-[33]), and thus avoids decisions on confidentiality being taken on an 'all-or-nothing' basis for each of the documents. The guidance also indicates the best way of preparing and submitting to the court redacted versions of documents containing confidential information in a manner that allows for scrutiny and a speedy narrowing down of any discrepancies between the parties on the need to redact any specific bits of information.

2. Creation of one- or two-tier confidentiality rings. TCC guidance defines confidentiality rings as comprising persons to whom documents containing confidential information may be disclosed on the basis of their undertakings to preserve confidentiality, at para [34]. Importantly, the guidance indicates both that the party's external legal advisors will need to be included in the confidentiality ring (para [37]) and that the inclusion of personnel of the parties, including their in-house lawyers, will need to be assessed on the basis of relevant factors likely to include "that party’s right to pursue its claim, the principle of open justice, the confidential nature of the document and the need to avoid distortions of competition and/or the creation of unfair advantages in the market (including any retender) as a result of disclosure" (para [39], emphasis added). In reaching a decision about a specific individual, account needs to be taken of "his/her role and responsibilities within the organisation; the extent of the risk that competition will be distorted as a result of disclosure to them; the extent to which that risk can be avoided or controlled by restrictions on the terms of disclosure; and the impact that any proposed restrictions would have on that individual (for example by prohibiting them from participating in a re-tender or future tenders for a period of time)" (para [40], emphasis added). Similar reasoning would apply to other specialist advisors (such as accountants or other experts) (see para [43]).

Interestingly, the TCC guidance clarifies that employee representatives may need to be "admitted to a confidentiality ring on different terms from external representative" (para [41]), this giving rise to two-tier confidentiality rings--which administration can take different forms: ie, either court administered, with the judicial body establishing the conditions of access by different categories of representatives of the parties, or by delegating the management of the access to the confidentiality ring to the external advisors of the parties, who would then act as gatekeepers of the confidential information (para [42]). This second possibility may be foreign to practice and legal culture in other jurisdictions, but the first (court-administered) possibility for a two-tier confidentiality ring seems quite promising to me.

3. Establishment of (enforceable) undertakings to prevent unauthorised uses of the information gained as part of a confidentiality ring. TCC guidance establishes that access to confidential information will only be allowed where the members of confidentiality rings provide undertakings that "will preclude the use of the relevant material other than for the purposes of the proceedings and prevent disclosure outside the ring" (para [44]). More importantly, the TCC guidance explicitly contemplates the possibility for additional undertakings to be necessary "where there are concerns that disclosure could have an impact on competition and/or any subsequent procurement", and that such additional measures can include: "(1) Preventing employee representatives from holding copies of documents at their place of work and requiring them to inspect the material at a defined location (such as the offices of their external lawyers) ; (2) Limiting the involvement of a recipient of a document in any re-procurement of the contract which is the subject of the litigation; (3) Limiting the role which a recipient can play in competitions for other similar contracts for a fixed period of time in a defined geographic area; and/or (4) Preventing the recipient from advising on or having any involvement in certain matters, again for a fixed period of time" (para [45], emphasis added).

Of course, the monitoring of such undertakings will be complex and there can be very difficult evidentiary issues linked to claims of undue subsequent use of confidential information gained in the context of previous procurement litigation. On that issue, the TCC guidance establishes a strict proportionality test, whereby "[w]hilst the Court will give weight to the need to protect competition in the market, the more onerous the proposed restriction is, the more clearly it will need to be justified" (para [46]). In my view, this will play both ways. On the one hand, high risks of competition distortions will be able to justify the imposition of heavy restrictions on future activity of the employee concerned. On the other, an in reverse reasoning, the Court will have to ensure that future restrictions are not disproportionate to the value of the information and the position of the employee within its organisation.

However, there is a third implication that may bear spelling out, which is that some risks of future distortions of competition will be so high, that no acceptable restrictive measure can be designed--in which case I would argue against the inclusion of the relevant person in the confidentiality ring (eg I would not grant the CFO of a company access to the detailed financial schedule of any of its competitors).

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Overall, I think that the TCC guidance will be useful and it will be interesting to see to what extent the practical roll-out of these recommendations provide an even more detailed case study that can serve as benchmark in other jurisdictions seeking to regulate the disclosure of confidential information in the context of public procurement litigation.