HomeFWJ takeawayTakeawayFraud and freezing ordersNorwich Pharmacal ordersConfidentiality of information may not be a defence to a Norwich Pharmacal application

A Norwich Pharmacal order can be a useful tool for a party to use when trying to find out further information or documents in relation to a claim which they may have.

Norwich Pharmacal orders can compel a third party, who is not directly involved in the litigation, to disclose relevant information or documentation to a claimant, who would not ordinarily have been able to obtain such information.

Recent case law

In the case of Hickox v Dickinson [2020] EWHC 2520 (Ch), the use of Norwich Pharmacal orders in the often secretive art world was considered.

It is fairly common in the art world that the identity of a purchaser of a piece of art (especially an expensive one) is kept confidential by the art dealer or auction house. This is because a purchaser often wishes to remain anonymous.

In the Hickox case, Mrs Hickox owned an expensive painting by the French impressionist Paul Signac. She wished to sell the painting and entered into arrangements with a Mr Sammons who agreed to broker a sale on her behalf. Unknown to Mrs Hickox, Mrs Sammons took possession of the painting and sold it to an anonymous purchaser for US$4.85 million. The buyer was represented in the sale by the Defendant art dealers. Monies used to purchase the painting were given to Mr Sammons who failed to account to Mrs Hickox. It is worth noting that Mr Sammons is currently serving a 4 -12 year prison term for his part in the theft/fraud.

As Mrs Hickox wished to know the whereabouts of the painting, she made a Norwich Pharmacal application seeking information from the art dealers, Dickinson, as to the identity of the purchaser and its dealings in relation to its sale.

In order to establish that a Norwich Pharmacal order should be granted, Mrs Hickox had to show that:

  • there was a good arguable case that a wrong had been committed;
  • that the Respondent (in this case the art dealers) had been involved in that wrongdoing;
  • that the Respondent was likely to have the necessary information and documents to enable Mrs Hickox to be able to pursue the wrongdoer; and
  • that it was proportionate and appropriate to order such disclosure.

The difficulty which Mrs Hickox faced in this matter was that at the time of her application, she did not know what wrong had been committed against her and if it was actionable. This would only be revealed if the court ordered disclosure by the art dealers.

The court found that Mrs Hickox had a good arguable case that a wrongdoing had been committed, even if she was unable to identify what that wrong was.

Amongst the arguments put forward on behalf of Dickinson was one of confidentiality;

  • they argued that confidentiality of their clients was very important in the art world and that their reputation within the industry would suffer if they had to disclose confidential information about the transaction and the purchaser;
  • the court rejected the argument and granted the Norwich Pharmacal order.
  • the court stated that confidentiality was a custom in the art world, rather than any kind legal obligation.

The decision in Hickox is an interesting one as it appears to broaden the circumstances in which a court may grant a Norwich Pharmacal application. It appears that it is no longer necessary for an applicant to identify the wrong which has been committed, so long as they can show they have a good arguable case that there has been a wrongdoing and the application is not simply a “fishing expedition” to obtain information from a third party.

The court’s rejection of the confidentiality argument put forward by Dickinson is also likely to be used in the future against respondents who assert similar grounds as to why disclosure should not be ordered.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the decision appears to be the correct one. Mrs Hickox had been the victim of theft/fraud and simply because she was unable to identify the nature of the wrongdoing which has been committed against her, it should not have prevented her from obtaining such information from a third party which may ultimately assist her in seeking to recover some of her losses.


At Francis Wilks & Jones we are the experts in Norwich Pharmacal orders. We have a team who deal specifically with Norwich Pharmacal orders and are located very close to the high court in London in the event we need to attend court. Contact us now for our expert assistance.

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