Tort: False Imprisonment

False Imprisonment

The Requirements

A claimant can establish false imprisonment if they can show that:

  1. The defendant detained them; and
  2. That detention was unlawful: Bird v Jones (1845) 115 ER 668.

There is no need to establish that the claimant suffered any loss: R (Lumba) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2012] 1 AC 245. However, the absence of any loss may affect the damages awarded.

This means that the fact that the claimant could have been lawfully detained in the circumstances (and so suffered no loss) is irrelevant. 


Detention is any act compelling the claimant to remain in a particular location against his will: Bird v Jones (1845) 115 ER 668. There is no need for the claimant to be touched physically by the defendant. Examples including locking the room the claimant is in or stationing people to block the claimant’s way out.

There must be an ‘act’ of detention. An omission, such as the failure to unlock a door which was lawfully locked, is not a detention: Iqbal v Prison Officers Association [2010] QB 732.

The act must completely prevent the claimant from leaving the area. Merely stopping the claimant from using a particular route, leaving them free to leave any other way, is not detention: Bird v Jones (1845) 115 ER 668. This is so even if the other routes are less convenient. There must be total obstruction. 

If there is total obstruction, it does not matter that it was only for a short period of time: Walker v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis [2015] 1 WLR 312.

The Claimant’s Knowledge of Detention

It is unclear whether it is relevant that the claimant was unaware that they were being imprisoned.

The House of Lords in R v Bournewood Mental Health Trust (ex parte L) [1999] 1 AC 458 held that a mental patient was not detained in an unlocked hospital because he was unaware of the fact that if he tried to leave he would be prevented from doing so. However, this decision has been replaced in the context of mental health hospitals with the statutory detention regime under the Mental Capacity Act 2005.

The idea that the claimant’s knowledge is irrelevant was disapproved of by Lord Griffiths in Murray v Ministry of Defence [1988] 1 WLR 692 and Atkin LJ in Meering v Grahame-White Aviation (1919) 122 LT 44. While these remarks were obiter they have received recent (also obiter) approval by the Supreme Court in R (Lumba) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2012] 1 AC 245.

It is likely that future courts will follow the views of the Supreme Court in Lumba. This means that it is probably not relevant that the claimant did not know they were unable to leave.

The Defendant’s State of Mind

The defendant must intend, or subjectively foresee the possibility of, imprisonment: Iqbal v Prison Officers Association [2010] QB 732 (Smith LJ). This means that if the defendant locks a room thinking it is empty, they are not unlawfully detaining a claimant who happens to be inside.  

If the defendant is objectively negligent in imprisoning the claimant, the claimant should sue for negligence instead. Loss of liberty is a recoverable head of loss in the tort of negligence: W v Home Office [1997] Imm AR 302.

Detention Via Intermediaries

The defendant’s actions must be directly responsible for the detention. If the defendant directs a third-party to enact the detention, the defendant is only liable if:


It is not unlawful to make the claimant’s exit from a place he voluntarily entered conditional on a reasonable and fair action: Robinson v Balmain New Ferry Company (1906) 4 CLR 379. For example, making the claimant pay a small fee to leave may not be unlawful.

Police and other State authorities have statutory powers to make lawful arrests and detention. See particularly the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

Not all breaches of statutory conditions render the detention unlawful, however. Any illegality must take the officer’s acts completely outside of the ambit of their lawful powers for the detention to be considered unlawful, and the officer probably must be aware of this (acting in bad faith): Hague v Deputy Governor of Parkhurst Prison [1992] 1 AC 58.

If a valid order for detention is withdrawn, there is no longer lawful authority to detain and subsequent detention is unlawful: R v Governer of Brockhill Prison ex parte Evans [2001] 2 AC 19.  

If the conditions of the detention are unlawful, the claimant’s cause of action lies in other torts, such as negligence: Hague v Deputy Governor of Parkhurst Prison [1992] 1 AC 58.


Personal Torts Quiz

Test yourself on the principles of the torts against the person - assault, battery, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of harm.

1 / 21

If the defendant touches the claimant accidentally but refuses to end the contact when asked, has the defendant committed the tort of battery?


2 / 21

The claimant has sued the defendant for false imprisonment. They claim that they initially consented to the detention, but later withdrew their consent. The defendant shows that it would be very costly and inconvenient to put this withdrawal of consent into effect. Is the defendant liable for false imprisonment?


3 / 21

For the purposes of the tort of battery, has the defendant 'directly' touched the claimant if they do so through an object or by setting a trap to later trigger and touch them?


4 / 21

What three elements must a claimant show to establish the tort of intentional infliction of emotional harm?

5 / 21

The defendant performed surgery on the claimant. They first informed the claimant about the nature and purpose of the surgery, but did not inform them of serious risks of injury involved. The claimant agreed to the surgery. The claimant then sues the defendant in the tort of battery, claiming that they did not give valid consent. Is the claimant correct?


6 / 21

The claimant moves through a toll booth operated by the defendant. They then decide they want to leave, but the defendant will not let them past unless they pay a small fee. Has the defendant committed the tort of false imprisonment?

7 / 21

The police may normally rely on their powers of arrest and stops as a defence to a personal interference tort claim. When is this not the case?

8 / 21

When is a child competent to give consent to an action which would otherwise constitute a personal interference tort?

9 / 21

What state of mind must the defendant possess before a claimant can establish the tort of false imprisonment?

10 / 21

When will the defendant be liable for the tort of false imprisonment as a primary defendant (not vicariously) where the detention was imposed by a third-party?

11 / 21

What must the claimant show to establish the tort of assault?

12 / 21

In what three situations will the courts label touching as 'hostile' for the purposes of the tort of battery?

13 / 21

The tort of false imprisonment is actionable per se. True or false?

14 / 21

Does the claimant need to be aware they are being detained to establish the tort of false imprisonment?

15 / 21

For the purposes of the tort of false imprisonment, in which of these scenarios is the claimant 'detained'?

16 / 21

When is an adult competent to give consent to an action which would otherwise constitute a personal interference tort?

17 / 21

When determining if the defence of self-defence or defence of others applies in tort, what facts may be taken into account to judge whether the force was necessary?

18 / 21

A member of the public has the power to enact a citizen's arrest for any offence. True or false?


19 / 21

To establish the tort of battery, what three elements must the claimant show?

20 / 21

Which of the following three scenarios cannot constitute an assault?

21 / 21

Can a claimant give valid consent to an action which causes actual bodily harm or greater in tort?

Your score is