UK: Disciplinary Investigations and Legal Professional Privilege

Last Updated: 20 June 2003

The recent Privy Council decision in B and Others v Auckland District Law Society and Another [2003] UKPC 38 reaffirms the importance of the right to legal professional privilege as part of the public interest in the administration of justice, and sets out guidance on the limited circumstances in which the right can be overridden.

The principle of legal professional privilege prevents the disclosure of confidential communications between a client and his lawyer which were created for the dominant purpose of obtaining legal advice. The issue before the Privy Council was whether this fundamental right could be overridden in circumstances where another public interest i.e. the maintenance of the integrity of the legal profession, which may be said to require the production of all relevant information to those charged with the investigation and determination of complaints against legal practitioners, would support the disclosure of such documents.


The appeal to the Privy Council from the Court of Appeal in New Zealand was brought by a law firm based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a number of its present and former partners. The partners were the subject of complaints to the respondent, the Auckland District Law Society (the Society), a statutory body with jurisdiction to investigate complaints of professional misconduct and bring disciplinary proceedings against its members.

The main issue was whether the Society was entitled under section 101(3)(d) of the Law Practitioners Act 1982 to require the firm to produce privileged documents for the purpose of an inquiry into allegations of professional misconduct. Section 101(3)(d) of the Act provides for the relevant District Law Society to require the production of any books, documents, papers, accounts or records in the possession or under the control of the person complained against or his employer which relate to the subject-matter of the inquiry. However, the Act was silent as to whether or not the power to require the production of documents extended to privileged material.

By a majority, the New Zealand Court of Appeal had held that the Act overrode any claim to legal professional privilege which may subsist in the documents. The Court accepted the high importance of the privilege, but considered that it was overridden by the even higher public interest in maintaining the integrity of the legal profession. However, the Privy Council took a different view.

Legal professional privilege: the public interest test

Lord Millett, giving judgment on behalf of the Privy Council, noted the authoritative exposition of the rationale of legal professional privilege in the speech of Lord Taylor CJ in R v Derby Magistrates’ Court ex parte B [1996] 1 AC 487.

He stated that the present case involved a contest between two competing public interests of high importance, namely:

  1. The public interest in the maintenance of the integrity of the legal profession, which requires that all relevant information be made available to those responsible for investigating and determining complaints against legal practitioners; and
  2. The public interest in the administration of justice, which requires that a lawyer must be able to give his client an absolute and unqualified assurance that whatever the client tells him in confidence will never be disclosed without his consent.

Lord Millett stated that where the right to compel production of documents was statutory, as in this case, the balance between these factors was struck by Parliament when enacting the statute in question. In such a case the task of the Court was not to decide where the balance should be struck in the particular case, but where Parliament had struck it.

The question, therefore, was whether the Act excluded legal professional privilege from its scope either expressly or by necessary implication. The Court considered the wording of section 101(3)(d) of the Act and concluded that it did not expressly exclude legal professional privilege, nor did it do so by necessary implication. In reaching this conclusion, the Court had regard to New Zealand caselaw to the effect that, if the statutory section was capable of being interpreted on the supposition that the privilege was not abrogated by it, then it should be so interpreted.

Accordingly, the Privy Council concluded that legal professional privilege was a good answer to a requisition under the Act, whether at the investigative stage or in proceedings before a disciplinary tribunal.


The Privy Council’s judgment in this case highlights the importance of the principle of legal professional privilege. The Privy Council’s judgment adopted a similar approach to that taken by the House of Lords in R (Morgan Grenfell & Co Limited) v Special Commissioner of Income Tax [2002] 2 WLR 1299. In that case it was held that the Inland Revenue could not compel production of privileged communications when exercising statutory powers in the conduct of their investigations.

The impact of the decision is that it will be very difficult for a regulatory authority to argue that a statutory regime by necessary implication allows an investigator to override legal professional privilege. In giving guidance on those instances where privilege might be abrogated other than where it is expressly overridden, the Court suggested that a useful test was to write in the words "not being privileged documents" at the end of the relevant statutory provision and ask "does that produce an inconsistency?" or "does that stultify the statutory purpose?" The Court considered that the circumstances in which such a question would produce an affirmative answer would be rare.

Article by Andrew Lidbetter and Nusrat Zar

© Herbert Smith 2003

The content of this article does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as such. Specific advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

For more information on this or other Herbert Smith publications, please email us.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.