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Staff emails can’t just be accessed by a company whenever it feels like it, a UK High Court Judge has ruled, in what could be a guiding case on email privacy.

A marine transport company was trying to get access to the emails of a former chief executive, but Justice Edwards-Stuart ruled that the content of emails is not the firm’s property by default and so it can’t have them.

The case kicked off when Dutch-based Dockwise took over its rival Fairstar Heavy Transport in a hostile takeover in July this year. Once Dockwise got in the door though, it realised that Fairstar owed a hefty sum of money to a Chinese shipyard.

The company now claims that former CEO Philip Adkins, who resigned as soon as Dockwise moved in, never told the Dutch company about the debt in the run-up to the takeover. Dockwise took Adkins to court to try to get access to Adkins' emails to see what he had said about the debt and the takeover.

The whole thing was complicated by the fact that Adkins had been seconded by Dockwise from another company, Cadenza Management, which was actually his employer - so all of his emails had been forwarded from Fairstar’s servers to his Cadenza address.

Dockwise claims that Fairstar’s servers had deleted the emails when they sent them on to Adkins' other address, a claim that Adkins disagrees with.

Wherever the emails are located, the judge said they were not the property of Dockwise.

“There are no compelling practical reasons that support the existence of a proprietary right - indeed, practical considerations militate against it,” he said.

The only way that emails could belong to a firm is if they contained copyrighted material or confidential information or if the employee’s signed contract with the firm already said so.

“In my judgment it is clear that the preponderance of authority points strongly against there being any proprietary right in the content of information, and this must apply to the content of an email, although I would not go so far as to say that this is now settled law,” he added. ®

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