How to Stop Vital Evidence Being Destroyed
“Surprise the enemy” (Sun Tzu in ‘Art of War’)
You suspect that someone you are suing (or about to sue) will destroy or hide vital evidence in their possession. Perhaps by shredding documents or deleting electronic records supporting your case, or perhaps by spiriting away computer hard drives full of incriminating information. You fear that if they get away with it your case will be dead, or at least compromised.
Fortunately our law has a strong and quick remedy for you - the “Anton Piller” order, by means of which the High Court can authorise a search for, and a seizure into safekeeping of, the relevant evidence until trial.
Surprise raids and fishing expeditions
This is a drastic and draconian remedy. For obvious reasons this is a “surprise raid” on the other party – giving advance notice to the other party of your court application would defeat the whole object.
Which means that the other party suffers an unannounced and substantial invasion of its privacy, leading to all sorts of disruption and potential damage to its business.
Which is why our courts have laid down strict requirements that you must comply with before you will be granted an order. A recent Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) decision illustrates – A developer and seller of computer software wanted to sue a company it had dealt with for damages on the basis of alleged breaches of contract and for unlawful competition. It obtained in the High Court an Anton Piller order giving access to the Deputy Sheriff, independent attorneys and forensic specialists to search and seize “documents specified in the order, computer equipment or any other storage devices”. This order was subsequently set aside and the developer, attempting to have the order re-instated, approached the SCA for leave to appeal.
The Court in refusing leave to appeal analysed and applied the requirements for an order to preserve evidence under three main headings. You must establish (prima facie, in other words “on first appearance” but not definitively at this stage) the following –
That you have a cause of action against the other party, which you intend to pursue. The developer had, said the Court, established this.
That the other party has in its possession “specific documents or things which constitute vital evidence in substantiation of [your] cause of action…” This, said the Court, required the developer to “identify the documents it sought to preserve with the necessary degree of specificity”. A “blanket search for unspecified documents or evidence, which may or may not exist, is not permitted”. You have to be specific.
The major flaw in the developer’s case was, said the Court, its failure in its affidavits to identify or specify which vital information was in possession of [the other party] that needed to be preserved. It proposed a “keyword” search to be used in searching the whole of the other party’s data base that was “invasive and a trawling expedition through every aspect of [the other party]’s business” including sensitive and confidential information to which it could not be entitled.
That you have a “well-founded apprehension that this evidence may be hidden or destroyed or in some manner spirited away by the time the case comes to trial…” But in this case, said the Court, the developer had failed to show that the other party was untrustworthy or dishonest, plus it had “failed to set out any factual basis for an objective conclusion to be reached of the well-founded and reasonable apprehension that evidence would be concealed.”
This particular order, held the Court, “involves a departure from the basic premise upon which Anton Piller orders are granted, namely that they are to preserve evidence, not search for it”, whilst its execution was “nothing but a fishing expedition” (emphasis added). The software developer could not succeed in re-instating its Anton Piller order.