A senior lawyer has been found in contempt of court after telling a client to “burn” its secure communications system to avoid handing evidence to supermarket group Ocado.
A High Court judge ruled on Wednesday that Raymond McKeeve acted “with the precise intention” of preventing a search of electronic data at a company founded by one of Ocado’s co-founders despite an order to preserve evidence as part of a corporate espionage probe.
McKeeve, a former partner at the US law firm Jones Day, was advising Today Development Partners, which was set up by Ocado co-founder Jonathan Faiman.
Ocado had accused Faiman of a conspiracy to misappropriate and misuse its confidential information along with another former Ocado employee, Jon Hillary, in a legal dispute that was settled last year. Ocado alleged Hillary had stolen corporate information, and obtained a search order against both men in 2019.
Faiman had filed a counterclaim against Ocado, describing claims of corporate espionage as “ludicrous” and alleging that the search warrant against him and Hillary was wrongly obtained. Faiman withdrew the action last year.
Following the search order, McKeeve contacted TDP’s IT manager telling him to “burn” a private communications app used by Faiman, Hillary, McKeeve and others — a message the lawyer later confessed to sending.
According to Wednesday’s judgment, “McKeeve knew that the purpose of the search order was to require a search to be carried out of the [app] and indeed his own stated intention was to prevent it being searched”.
McKeeve was not part of a conspiracy but his conduct was a “spontaneous act of colossal stupidity”, Mr Justice Adam Johnson ruled, adding that his regret seemed “entirely genuine”.
The former Day Jones partner had “interfered with the due administration of justice”, the judge ruled. “As a result of [McKeeve’s] intervention, [the app] was destroyed and so was not available to be imaged or searched as it should have been,” he added.
In court filings, McKeeve has admitted to sending the instruction to destroy the app, but said it was an attempt to protect his wife Belinda de Lucy, a former MEP for the Brexit party. TDP had been using her name as a pseudonym for Hillary, who was on gardening leave from Ocado and using the private communications system to speak to TDP, according to filings from both parties.
Ocado failed in a first application to commit McKeeve for contempt of court at the High Court in 2020. But the Court of Appeal overturned that decision last year and allowed the case to proceed.
Contempt can be a criminal offence potentially punishable by prison. A judge will decide on the potential sanction at a later date.
The High Court found that McKeeve was not liable on three other grounds of contempt.
Robert Weekes QC, a barrister representing McKeeve, told the court during a hearing in June that his client wished to “apologise sincerely to the court and to Ocado for the serious mistake”.
Lawyers for McKeeve did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ocado said in a statement: “We felt compelled to bring this solicitor’s conduct to the attention of the court as it was the right thing to do. Ocado has been vindicated in its decision to do so.”