What is False Imprisonment

False imprisonment occurs when a person is unlawfully restrained by arrest, confinement or prevention of movement from a particular place. It is an act of the defendant which intentionally or negligently confines the movement of the claimant to an area defined by the defendant. It should be noted that false imprisonment is actionable per se and must occur as a result of the direct act of the defendant.

               Ingredients of The Tort of False Imprisonment

1. Knowledge of the Claimant:

False imprisonment can occur whether or not the claimant was aware of it at the time it occurred. According to Lord Atkin, “a person can be imprisoned while he is asleep, in the case of drunkenness, while unconscious or while he is a lunatic”.

Thus, in the case of Meering vs Grahame White Aviation Company Ltd 1919 122, the claimant was brought to his employer’s office to answer some questions in relation to a theft. Two guards were stationed outside to prevent him from leaving the room. When the claimant found out, he sued for false imprisonment. Lord Atkin held:

“It appears to me that a person could be imprisoned without his knowledge. It is quite unnecessary to go on to show that in fact the man knew that he was imprisoned.”

Thus, the defendants were held liable for false imprisonment.

It should however be noted that if a person is not aware that he has been falsely imprisoned and he has suffered no harm, he can only be able to recover nominal damages.

2. The Character of the Act:

There must be total or complete restraint such that there is no means of escape. If there is a reasonable means of escape, it cannot amount to false imprisonment; Meering vs Grahame White Aviation Company Ltd.

To qualify for false imprisonment,the area of confinement should be one that has been fixed by the defendant and there is no reasonable way of escape. In the case of Bird vs Jones the plaintiff was prevented from crossing a particular bridge. He was however allowed to go through another route. He thus sued for false imprisonment.

In dismissing the claim for false imprisonment, Lord Coleridge Stated:

“…I am of opinion that there was no imprisonment. To call it so appears to me to confound partial obstruction and disturbance with total obstruction and detention. A prison may have its boundary large or narrow, visible and tangible, or, though real, still in the conception only; it may itself be moveable or fixed. But a boundary it must have; and that boundary the party imprisoned must be prevented from passing; he must be prevented from leaving that place, within the ambit of which the party imprisoning would confine him, except by prison-breach.

Some confusion seems to me to arise from confounding imprisonment of the body with mere loss of freedom: it is one part of the definition of freedom to be able to go whithersoever one pleases; but imprisonment is something more than the mere loss of this power; it includes the notion of restraint within some limits defined by a will or power exterior to our own…”

Lord Denman however dissented. He stated:

“…As long as I am prevented from doing what I have a right to do, of what importance is it that I am permitted to do something else? How does the imposition of an unlawful condition show that I am not restrained? If I am locked in a room, am I not imprisoned because I might effect my escape through a window, or because I might find an exit dangerous or inconvenient to myself as by wading through water or by taking a route so circuitous that my necessary affairs would suffer by delay? It appears to me that this is a total deprivation of liberty…”

Thus, it should be noted that if the means of escape is one that is risky or is likely to cause personal injury or unreasonable, there would be liability for false imprisonment.

The boundaries to the place of imprisonment do not necessarily need to be physical.  For example, in a case in which a commissioner in lunacy wrongfully used his authority to prevent the claimant from leaving his office, there was liability for false imprisonment. Thus, once a restraint has been effected by the assertion of authority, liability arises for false imprisonment.

It should be noted that in the instance of lawful detention, a change in the quality of condition would not amount to false imprisonment. Thus, if prisoners are housed in unsanitary cells, it would not amount to false imprisonment.

Thus, in the case of Hague vs Deputy Governor of Pakhurst Prison 1991 3 All Er 733, the defendant ordered that the claimant be transferred to a solitary and unsanitary cell away from the other prisoners. The plaintiff subsequently sued for false imprisonment. The court held that the fact that the claimant was already lawfully in detention meant that the prison authority had the right to move him to any prison they want. Thus the action for false imprisonment failed.

3. The State of Mind of the Defendant:

This means that to prove false imprisonment, the defendant must intend to do the act which resulted in false imprisonment. However, if a person is imprisoned even with a good intention, there would still be liability for false imprisonment.

In the case of R vs Governor of Brockhill Prison Exparte Evans No 2 2001 2 AC 19, the time of imprisonment of a convict was wrongfully calculated. Thus, the convict spent extra time in prison, it was held that this resulted in false imprisonment.


  1. lecture delivered by Dr Bashir Omipidan on the Law of Torts at the Faculty of Law University of Ilorin
  2. B.S. Markesinis and S.F Deakins: Tort Law


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