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Watkins v Secretary of State for the Home Department, Court of Appeal, 20 July 2004

30 July 2004
The issues

Misfeasance In Public Office – Whether It Is Necessary To Prove Damage As An Ingredient Of The Tort

The facts

The Claimant was a serving life prisoner. He was detained at Wakefield Prison and then moved to Frankland Prison. He was engaged in a variety of legal proceedings which required correspondence with legal advisors, Courts and other bodies and made many complaints to the effect that his correspondence was being treated by prison officers in the manner that conflicted with Rule 37a/Rule 39 (the rule providing for correspondence by a prisoner with his legal office advisor and any Court to be opened, read or stopped by the Governor only in accordance with the provisions of the rule).

He pursued the matter without satisfaction through the formal prison complaints system and by the Prison Ombudsman and was granted Legal Aid to bring an action for damages. He claimed damages for misfeasance in public office against the Home Office and 14 named prison officers. At Trial the Judge found that most of the officers had committed a breach of the rule but he equated them as bad faith. The Judge however was satisfied that three prison officers were guilty of bad faith in connection with their breach of the rule. The Judge dismissed the Claimant’s claim on the basis that he had not suffered any loss or damage which was required as an ingredient of the tort of misfeasance in public office.

The Claimant appealed to the Court of Appeal.

The decision

The leading case was that the decision of the House of Lords in Three Rivers District Council v Bank of England [2003]. In that case the question of whether or not damage was a necessary ingredient of the tort of misfeasance in public office did not have to be decided. Following Ashby v White, it was clear that there were some rights recognised by English law which were of such importance and constitutional significance that a cause of action might arise if such a right was infringed without the need to prove special damage.

The right of Mr Watkins which the three prison officers had infringed was a right of this level of importance so that when they maliciously infringed that right its cause of action in misfeasance in public office was complete even without proof of special damage.

A nominal award of £5.00 general damages would be entered against each three defendants and the case would be remitted to Judge Ibbotson to determine whether to make an exemplary award against any of them and how much that award should be – the Court of Appeal being persuaded that it itself did not have sufficient information to make an award of exemplary damages itself.

Appeal allowed.

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