Non-disclosure agreements are nothing new. They were initially used in commercial transactions in order to protect parties in negotiations from the disclosure of commercially sensitive information. It remains the case that businesses which are considering mergers or acquisitions will normally start the process by requiring the interested parties to sign an agreement that is intended to ensure that, in the event that discussions do not lead to fruition, details of the parties, such as their business plans, forecasts and any other confidential arrangements, are not at risk of being leaked. This makes perfect sense, not least from the point of view of data protection.
Their use has become more widespread and they have moved into the sphere of employment law. It is more or less standard for settlement agreements (on the termination of employment) to include clauses which provide that the parties will keep confidential the terms of settlement and the circumstances giving rise to it. In most cases, this suits both parties. In effect, the employee is agreeing a trade off with the employer that, in return for a pay off which avoids the need for protracted, expensive and uncertain legal proceedings, they will accept an enhanced payment on terms which, to borrow a term from divorce law, provides for a clean break.
However, you can’t have missed the furore that has brought such agreements into the news headlines, particularly in the case of retail supremo Sir Philip Green and media mogul Harvey Weinstein. The #MeToo movement has led to a lively public debate about the inequality of arms which tends to accompany such deals and their ability to conceal serious wrongdoing including illegal activities, particularly discriminatory behaviour and, in the more severe cases, the sexual assault of women.