ASIC Information Sheet 165 – Legal Professional Privilege and Responding to Compulsory Production Notices

Late last year (13 December 2012) ASIC released its Information Sheet 165 outlining the approach it takes to claims of legal professional privilege (LPP). ASIC has compulsory information gathering powers to require disclosure of information. This power may be exercised in respect of their regulatory work. As ASIC stated in its press release, documents and information that attract a valid claim of LPP does not have to be provided. However, when the recipient of a notice compelling production of documents makes a claim of LPP, issues can arise as to whether the claim has been properly established, and whether LPP information can be provided to ASIC on a limited and confidential basis.

In Section 6 of the information sheet, ASIC states in summary that if in ASIC’s opinion a claim of LPP is not substantiated by the information provided, or in their view it is otherwise not valid (by reason of waiver or because it is simply not privileged, in their view) then you, the party claiming LPP in a document, have several choices. You may (a) withdraw your claim of LPP and provide the information to ASIC, (b) enter into a voluntary LPP dispute resolution process with ASIC, or (c) make an application to Court to seek a declaration that the information is privileged.There is also a fourth choice: (d) maintain your claim of LPP but provide the documents voluntarily on a strictly confidential basis.

Earlier in ASIC’s Information Sheet, at Section 5, ASIC outlines the procedure they refer to as “Voluntary confidential disclosure of LPP information”. Under this approach, ASIC may accept, on a confidential basis, privileged information voluntary provided by a notice recipient. Broadly, ASIC and the privilege holder agree that the disclosure of the information is on a strictly confidential basis, and ASIC and the privilege holder agree that the disclosure is not a waiver of any privilege existing at the time of the disclosure. ASIC notes that this prevents ASIC from later asserting that the provision of the information to it amounts to waiver, but may not prevent third parties from asserting that privilege has been waived thereby.

In this regard, I note that in the Centro privilege decision I reviewed last year, PwC sought to argue that Centro had waived privilege by their provision of documents to ASIC by virtue of notices issued under s 30 of the ASIC Act 2001 (Cth) requiring their compulsory production. Centro had provided some unredacted documents to ASIC under covering letters expressing their provision to be on a confidential basis, with an express reservation of privilege and an express lack of intention to waive privilege. Bromberg J held that while there might have been a limited waiver by Centro as against ASIC, there was not necessarily waiver as against a third party like PwC. His Honour referred to the High Court’s decision in Mann v Carnell [1999] HCA 66; 201 CLR 1 at [32]. See Kirby v Centro Properties Limited (No 2)[2012] FCA 70 and my post of February 2012 entitled “Centro class action developments – (a) privilege and (b) a bombshell”. (The privilege section of this post was later republished in extended form, and may be viewed here.)

It is useful to consider the judgment by Bromberg J in Kirby v Centro on this issue of the “voluntary” provision of privileged documents to ASIC in response to a notice from ASIC compelling production, in particular the passages at [97]-[108].

In relation to waiver, the judgment provides some comfort, in that it demonstrates that documents provided under compulsion to ASIC for a limited purpose, may retain the protection of privilege as against other third parties (cf AWB Ltd v ASIC [2008] FCA 1877 at [26]). However caution is warranted. Much will depend upon the circumstances of their provision, and the extent to which a company can claim that its provision of the documents was consistent with the maintenance of confidentiality in those documents as against third parties.

ASIC’s letters accompanying the s 30 notices requiring production of documents in Kirby v Centro stated that ASIC understood a valid claim of legal professional privilege was a reasonable excuse for not producing documents pursuant to the s 30 notice and that accordingly, Centro was not obliged to produce documents which were covered by a valid claim to privilege. However, so ASIC’s letters said, if a claim for legal professional privilege was made, detailed information in support of that claim was required by ASIC in order that ASIC could assess whether the claim was justified.

In response Centro provided documents, some unredacted, including those to which it later claimed privilege in these proceedings as against PwC. Centro’s solicitors went to some length in their covering letters accompanying the documents (see paragraph [99]). It is instructive to have regard to some of the statements their letters included, bearing in mind the successful result they obtained here on the question of privilege –

  • That Centro did not intend to waive legal professional privilege by providing documents to ASIC to which Centro may be entitled to claim legal professional privilege,
  • That in the event that Centro ascertained that a document or part of a document was one over which it was entitled to assert a claim for legal professional privilege, Centro reserved the right to seek to assert legal professional privilege over that document,
  • As to confidentiality, that the documents provided to ASIC were confidential and that they were being provided on the basis that ASIC would treat the documents as confidential and not provide them, or disclose the information contained within them to any other person except under legal compulsion or with Centro’s prior written consent.

(I note that on 28 February 2012 PwC sought leave to appeal the judgment of Bromberg J, but leave was refused by North J (link).)

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