Chinese walls under fire in Richards Butler case

Chambers' confidentiality system is central argument in anti-conflicts appeal

The controversial system of Chinese walls to avoid leaks of private information in chambers is due to be scrutinised for the first time.
The alleged frailties of barristers' Chinese walls is likely to be the centrepiece of Richards Butler's appeal in Koch Shipping v Richards Butler against the decision that its anti-conflicts defences were insufficient to avoid a risk of claimants' confidential information being inadvertently leaked. This is the largest case on conflicts involving the legal profession since the Prince Jefri litigation.
The appeal is likely to contain the argument that chambers' defences against leaks are weak compared with the elaborate array of barriers against conflict in law firms.
It is said that the outcome of the case, particularly a judgment that goes against Richards Butler, will send a warning to chambers to reform their guards against conflicts. This may include an overhaul of the longstanding and common arrangement of barristers from the same chambers acting on different sides in a case.
The case revolves around a Richards Butler partner who previously acted against the firm while acting for Koch Shipping. While the case was ongoing she moved to Richards Butler, where there were partners acting against Koch. The situation faced by Richards Butler is not uncommon in chambers.
As a result of this case, lawyers may go as far as taking out an injunction to stop sets from allowing barristers from the same chambers to act on both sides.
In Richard Butler's case, which starts on 23 July, specific examples of the alleged weaknesses of chambers' Chinese walls will be referred to. They will include claims that clerks whose tenants are acting against each other still sit around the same table, walk past the same fax machines, and may inspect each other's diaries.
Concern is also expected to be raised over risks of leaks of private information arising if spouses work as barristers in the same field. It may be argued that pillow talk can lead to harmful leaks of sensitive data. The fact that arbitrators can hear cases brought before them by barristers from the same chambers will also be looked at.
Several years ago, One Essex Court defeated allegations of conflicts which arose out of the fact that a former arbitrator and silk from the set were involved in the same case.