Law of Torts
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This article is written by Devansh Sharma, a student of Law School, Banaras Hindu University. This article deals with the concept and provisions related to the offence of False Imprisonment under the Law of Torts.


False Imprisonment can be defined as an act of causing unlawful confinement of one person by another. To constitute an offence of false imprisonment certain factors need to be present such as:

  • Probable cause for imprisonment, 
  • Knowledge of the plaintiff of his/her imprisonment,
  • The intention of the defendant while causing imprisonment, and 
  • Period of confinement matters.

There can be cases where any private individual, a police officer or any other public authority may falsely imprison any person. For the act of imprisonment to occur, it is not compulsory that imprisoned person should be put behind bars. The person just needs to be confined in an area where there are no possible ways to escape. The escape is possible only at the will of the person who is confining the other person within that area. The degree of imprisonment does not matter. The main element that is of relevance is the absence of lawful authority to justify unlawful confinement.

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As every other tort, false imprisonment also has a defence. The defences available for false imprisonment are:

  • Consent of the plaintiff;
  • Voluntary assumption of the risk; 
  • Probable cause; or
  • Contributory negligence. 

The defence of probable cause and consent of the plaintiff are complete defences. While the defence of contributory negligence can be used for mitigation of damages only.

There are also incidents of False arrests. It is also a form of false imprisonment. It is the kind of arrest where an individual is confined by the police officer or private person without lawful authority. False imprisonment and false arrest are nearly indistinguishable except for the terminology used for these offences. These both offences have been held by the courts as a single tort.

There are three kinds of remedies for false imprisonment. They are:

  • Damages, 
  • Habeas Corpus,
  • Self-help. 

As false imprisonment is a tort, the basic remedy available for false imprisonment is an action for damages which can be due to: 

  • Physical or mental suffering, 
  • Loss of reputation, 
  • Even malicious intent on behalf of the defendant. 

If a person is unlawfully confined then the writ of habeas corpus can be used to regain release of such a person from confinement. A person can also exercise reasonable force in order to escape from unlawful confinement.

Constituents of False Imprisonment

Let us discuss the above-mentioned constituents of false imprisonment in a more elaborate way.

Period of Confinement

An action for false imprisonment will always lie if all the requirements of the torts are satisfied. The time period of unlawful detention does not matter in case of false imprisonment. Confinement for a very short period, even if it is for fifteen minutes, is sufficient to impose liability of false imprisonment on the confiner. The time period of confinement is generally of relevance only in the estimation of damages and not of liability.

Confinement for a long period does not necessarily mean that imprisonment occurred is false and compensable. If such a clause is formulated then lawful detention may become unlawful, if the detention is extended for an unreasonable period of time.

The Intention Factor

The tort of false imprisonment must contain the element of intent. A person can not be held liable for the tort of false imprisonment unless the act performed is for the purpose of imposing confinement. He can also be held liable if the act is done with the knowledge that confinement, to a substantial certainty, will result from the act. The intent to confine is the necessary intent for the purposes of false imprisonment. In the process of finding the necessary element of intent, the defendant’s actual motives are immaterial. The plaintiff need not contend that the confinement was unlawful. He just needs to show that the defendant intended to accomplish the act that causes the confinement. Malice is irrelevant in this tort. It is ordinary for the judge to determine, the intention of the defendant in an action for false imprisonment, as a question of fact, from the evidence. Even negligent acts can cause this tort of false imprisonment. For example, if a person A locks person B inside a room being unaware of the fact that there is a person in the room then person A is held liable for false imprisonment.

Knowledge of the Plaintiff

Is the plaintiff’s knowledge of his imprisonment important?

There is no requirement that the plaintiff had knowledge of the imprisonment. If the person alleging false imprisonment was unaware of the restraint on his freedom at the time of his confinement, then too, he can be awarded damages. This can be supported by citing the example of the famous case of Meering v. Grahame White Aviation Co, where a man was persuaded by works police to remain in the office. The man was unaware that if he had tried to leave, then he would be prevented from doing so. The man successfully recovered damages for false imprisonment. 

In another case of Herring v Boyle, an action brought by a schoolboy against his headmaster for being detained in the school during the holidays. It was stated by the plaintiff that he was confined because his parents had not paid the fees. The action brought to the court failed. The court held that actual knowledge of detention is not a necessary element of false imprisonment but proof of a total restraint of liberty is sufficient.

So, this clears us on the point of forced imprisonment and knowledge of the plaintiff about such an imprisonment but what if there is a situation where the plaintiff is inside a room or a building and the defendant decides that if the plaintiff comes out of the room or the building then the defendant would try to stop him from escaping. The plaintiff does not get out of the building and the defendant has yet not stopped him. So, has the defendant imprisoned the plaintiff? The answer that might come to one’s mind would definitely be “No.” The thought that the defendant did not confine anyone and so, he cannot be confined just for his mental state of thoughts might arise.

In the case of R v Bournewood Community and Mental Health NHS Trust, ex parte L: CA 2 Dec 1997, this decision was confirmed by the House of Lords that the case concerned a person L who had a history of health problems. The person has spent 30 years in Bournewood hospital. In the year 1994, L was discharged into the community and looked after by paid carers. However, in 1997 after an incident in a daycare centre, L became particularly agitated and voluntarily agreed to go back to the hospital. There, he was kept in an unlocked room. He was not restrained from leaving. However, the staff of the hospital decided that if L attempts to leave then they will charge him under the Mental Health Act 1983 and prevent him from leaving. L did make an attempt to leave and was sectioned. When he was eventually discharged, L sued the hospital. L claimed that his employees had falsely imprisoned him. The Court dismissed the claim. It held that the fact that during that time the hospital staff were prepared to section L if he makes an attempt to leave did not mean the staff had imprisoned him.

Place of Confinement

The term false imprisonment can be misleading. It does not necessarily mean being confined to a jail or prison. In order to constitute the wrong of false imprisonment, there is no need for actual imprisonment in the ordinary sense- i.e. incarceration. In the ordinary sense, any place, whether be it a prison or any place used temporarily for the purpose of confinement, constitutes false imprisonment. If the plaintiff in any manner has been deprived of his liberty completely, for any time, however short, is enough to form this tort. Therefore, the action of false imprisonment can lie, even if the confinement is in a mental institution, juvenile home, hospital or nursing home. For example, a mere unlawful arrest amounts to false imprisonment and so does the act by which a man is prevented from leaving the place in which he is (e.g., a house, a motor car, or a bank etc).

The deprivation of the plaintiff’s liberty should be complete in order to constitute imprisonment that is there must be a boundary drawn on every side of him beyond which he cannot pass. The boundary can be either narrow or broad but it must be definite and complete. To prevent the plaintiff from going in certain directions is not imprisonment. If the person is free to go in other directions then there will be no action for false imprisonment.

If a person induces another to put himself or herself in a place which is impossible to leave without assistance from such a person and then, by words or by other conducts, the person refuses to give such assistance, with the intent of detaining the other, is an act sufficient to commit wrongful confinement and to make such person liable.

In the famous case of Bird v Jones, a public way was blocked due to an enclosure created by the defendants for the purpose of viewing a boat race. The plaintiff in an attempt to use the way entered the enclosure of the defendants. The defendants stopped the plaintiff from walking through the enclosure. They instructed him to go back and use some other route to reach the destination. The plaintiff refused to leave and stayed, for half an hour, in the enclosure. The plaintiff sued the defendants for the offence of committing false imprisonment. The claim was rejected. The court stated that the defendant had done nothing that completely restricted the plaintiff’s freedom of movement. The plaintiff was free to leave the enclosure and find any different route for getting to the place he wanted to. Hence they cannot be charged with false imprisonment.

Use of force or its reasonable apprehension

Depriving any person of his or her liberty or compelling him/her to go in a direction in which he/she doesn’t wish to go, by use or exercise of force or expressed/implied threat of force, is false imprisonment. Therefore, the confinement or restraint necessary to create liability for false imprisonment can be imposed by compulsive physical force or by the actual use of physical force. But the actual use of physical force is not always necessary. The essential thing is the restraint of the person. It can be done by either threat or by using actual force or by inducing threat by the use of words that cause a suitable apprehension of the use of force in the mind of the other person. 

If the words or conduct are of such a kind that can induce reasonable apprehension of force, to such an extent that the person is effectually restrained then it will constitute false imprisonment. Therefore, in order to be actionable, the act performed by the defendant must at least create a basis for the reasonable apprehension of force. The circumstances surrounding the incident and the relationships surrounding the parties also have an important effect in this case.

Other Factors

Assault is an ingredient of false imprisonment but it is not considered as a constituent of false imprisonment. Proof of injury to the individual persons, character or reputation is not included in an action of false imprisonment.

It has been held on many occasions that the want of probable cause is not an essential element of false imprisonment and is not needed to be alleged by the plaintiff. Though some courts expressly require the plaintiff to show a lack of probable cause in a false arrest action.
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The defendant in order to avoid being liable for false imprisonment, must either show that he had reasonable grounds to justify his imprisonment or that he did not imprison the plaintiff. The presence of probable cause for imprisonment is not a defence. It can be a defence if it constitutes reasonable grounds for acting in making an arrest without warrant or in defence of property. An offer to release the plaintiff for a temporary time period has no effect on the action against false imprisonment.

Irrespective of the above fact, there can be certain other factors due to which the damages can be mitigated or the defendant can be exonerated from liability. If a person acting under a statute arrests a person, with the power that has been vested in him by the statute, then that person cannot be held liable. For example, many state legislatures in the USA have enacted statutes giving the merchants a qualified privilege to detain suspected shoplifters.


Liberty is an inalienable prerogative of which no one may divest himself. These lines were used to indicate that consent of the plaintiff to false imprisonment cannot be a defence as liberty cannot be waived off. It is often held that the consent of the plaintiff to acts of imprisonment restrict the right of recovery thereof. Consent of the plaintiff needs to be free from duress, coercion, fraud or mistake. There can also be implied consent in certain circumstances.

The maxim volenti non fit injuria( plaintiff consents to suffer the consequences of the act voluntarily) applies to the case of false imprisonment. The restraint must be involuntary. There is no act of false imprisonment if the plaintiff agrees of his/her free choice, to act in compliance with the request of the defendant. One who enters the territory or property of others, upon conditions that involve some restrictions on his liberty, cannot complain of false imprisonment.

In the renowned case of Robinson v Balmain New Ferry Company Ltd., the plaintiff desired to row a ferry across a river. In order to reach the wharf from which the ferry would depart, he had to go through the turnstile operated by the defendants. There were notices on either side making it clear that the charge of using the turnstile was one penny. The plaintiff paid the penny, went through the turnstile. He waited on the wharf for the ferry to arrive and pick him up. The plaintiff then changed his plans and decided to not to take the ferry. He tried to go through the turnstile but the defendants resisted. They stopped him by exclaiming that if he wants to use the turnstile then he has to pay one penny. The plaintiff refused to pay the penny. The defendants didn’t allow him to use the turnstile. The plaintiff sued the defendant claiming that the defendants have falsely imprisoned him. The court dismissed his claim by stating that by walking through the turnstile, the plaintiff voluntarily agreed to take the risk. He knew that if he fails to pay a penny then he will not be allowed to go back and that he could be imprisoned by the defendants.

In Herd v. Weardale Steel, Coal and Coke Company Ltd., the plaintiff was a minor who descended to the bottom of the lift at the start of his shift at work. On reaching the bottom, he refused to do certain work and asked to be lifted up to the surface. Though the plaintiff was allowed to go back to the surface at the end of the morning shift, even then he was not taken back when all the workers of the morning shift were being taken to the surface. The plaintiff sued the defendants for the act of committing false imprisonment. The House of Lords dismissed the claim. They held that the plaintiff voluntarily took the risk. He can be made to wait if he did not work and wanted to be taken back to the surface.

Similarly, it was seen in both the cases of Robinson v Balmain New Ferry Company Ltd and Herd v Weardale Steel, Coal and Coke Company Ltd that volenti non fit injuria applies to the tort of false imprisonment exonerating the defendant from his/her liability.

Contributory Negligence

Though the negligence of the plaintiff can restrain the recovery for the wrong of false imprisonment but the negligence of the plaintiff can not be a defence for false imprisonment. In any case, the plaintiff’s contributory negligence can be proved for the mitigation of damages but it can not be taken as an absolute defence for false imprisonment.

Probable Cause

It is a complete defence to the tort of false imprisonment, especially false arrest. When the probable cause is established then the action that lies against the tort of false imprisonment and false arrest fails completely. The test for probable cause for imprisonment and arrest is an objective one. It is based not on the individual’s actual guilt, but upon the information of credible facts or the information that would make a person of ordinary caution believe that the accused is guilty. If a defendant, who has established the probable cause for the alleged tort of false imprisonment or false arrest, then he has no additional obligation to prove. Even malicious motives on part of the defendant will not support any claim if probable cause is found to exist.

On the other hand, some courts have expressly implied that the plaintiff in a false arrest action is required to show a lack of probable cause for the detention, or indicated that the plaintiff has the burden of proving that lack of probable cause by affirmative pieces of evidence.

Necessity can be one of the probable causes. If the defendant has imprisoned the plaintiff as it was necessary for him to imprison the plaintiff in the way he did then the defendant possesses a lawful justification or excuse of imprisoning plaintiff for the way he did. Suppose, the defendant locked plaintiff in a room fearing that if the plaintiff is not confined, then the plaintiff will assault a third person. In such an event, if it can be proved that it was necessary on his part to perform such an action then he can not be held liable for the act of false imprisonment.

Sometimes, the act of imprisonment can be justified on the grounds that the defendant was acting in support of the law. But the courts are anxious to see that the liberty of the subjects is not curtailed except under due process of law. Thus, the onus of proving a legal justification lies on the defendant.

Remedies for False Imprisonment

There are broadly three remedies for false imprisonment, which can be categorized as:

Action for Damages

Damages in acts of false imprisonment are those which arise from the detention. A person injured by the conduct that is either reckless or intentional is entitled to compensatory damages. He is also under no duty to mitigate such damages. There is no legal provision for the assessment of the damages. This is entirely left on the court to measure damages.

Elements of injury to the person that are included in the concept of recovery of damages include:

  • Injury to the person and physical suffering, 
  • Mental suffering and humiliation, 
  • Loss of time earnings and interruption of businesses, 
  • Reasonable and necessary expenses incurred, 
  • Injury to the reputation,
  • Generally the deprivation of any right caused by the loss of liberty such as the plaintiff’s loss of the family company during the period of arrest.

The arresting officer is liable for the damages in case of false arrest. The officer can be liable up to the time he produced the person before the judicial officer but he is not liable thereafter. The damages for false arrest need to be measured only to the time of appearance before the court or indictment. The defendant is liable for all the consequences resulting from false arrest, where there exists a continuity between an unlawful arrest and subsequent discharge of the accused as to constitute one continuous unlawful act.

The purview of damages recoverable goes beyond those which are already suffered. The general rule existing is that, during any action for personal torts, future damages to an injured person also form an element of recovery, where there is a reasonable chance that they will result in false imprisonment.

The broad and general rule declared in that the person causing the wrongful confinement is liable for all the natural and probable consequences of such an act. Where a plaintiff is injured not only due to false imprisonment but also due to another non-compensable cause, only those damages that are found to be a natural result of false imprisonment are recoverable.

Nominal and Compensatory Damages

In a personal tort action, the general rule that the plaintiff is entitled to recover such a sum as will be just and fair compensation for the injuries sustained. The recoverable damages are limited to such compensation, in the absence of conditions validating an award for exemplary damages, applies in case of false imprisonment.

Mere unlawful confinement or detention can also constitute the foundation for the recovery of at least nominal damages. Awarding only nominal damages can be erroneous and insufficient in circumstances where the proven facts point to a right to greater damages.

The damages recoverable must be accepting of ascertainment with a reasonable degree of certainty and damages for false imprisonment which are merely assumed are not recoverable. It has been held that the person can be imprisoned without having knowledge of his/her imprisonment. In such cases, the plaintiff might obtain only nominal damages.

Mental suffering is usually considered an injury which includes freight, shame or mortification generating out of the indignity and disgrace. It can be a consequence of illegal detention. Compensation may be made for such an act of false arrest or false imprisonment.

The fact that no physical injury was done to the plaintiff is no defence. The complainant of false imprisonment can not be denied the recovery of reasonable compensation for mental suffering. Elements considered in assessing mental suffering are humiliation, freight and shame.

Punitive, Exemplary and Aggravated Damages

In cases where imprisonment is affected maliciously, insultingly, oppressively and recklessly with an intent to oppress and injure, in such cases, the jury can go beyond the rule of compensation. The jury is free to inflict punishment to the defendant that may be awarded exemplary or punitive damages. Punitive damages are provided in cases where the conduct of the defendant is recklessly indifferent to the rights of others or in intentional or wanton violation of others’ rights. In certain circumstances, exemplary damages can be awarded, when there is an abuse of power by the state.

Aggravated damages can be provided in any proper case when the imprisonment of a nominal character is of offensive nature or hurt fell to the plaintiff’s feelings. Punitive damages have been given as a means of prohibiting the defendants from the same kind of future conduct. Punitive damages have been provided in most of the cases of false imprisonment when the act was performed in a malicious manner.

Even in such jurisdiction where awarding of exemplary damages is generally allowed, such damages can not be permitted in the absence of actual or real damage suffered by the plaintiff. However, actual or real damage has depicted that extent is a tool for determining whether punitive damages are allowed. Punitive damages have also been permitted where an arrest is made with the knowledge that the arrest is in violation of the court’s order.

Courts have often stated that any malice or malicious conduct will result in awarding of exemplary or punitive damages in an action for false imprisonment or false arrest. Similarly, presumed or implied malice has been stated to have sustained such awards of exemplary or punitive damages. Punitive or exemplary damages will not be permitted in cases where the false imprisonment is brought about in good faith, without malice in fact or in law and there is no element of oppression.

Habeas Corpus

The writ of Habeas Corpus can be issued by the Supreme Court of India and High Court of States under article 32 and 226 respectively. This is generally passed to deal with the cases of false arrest or for prolonged detention by police officers. The person can apply for the writ upon which the court will command to bring him to the court on a certain day. The decision will be dependent on whether the prisoner will be released or if the detention is proved then he will be speedily presented before the court for a fair trial.

Subject to certain rules of the High Courts, an application for habeas corpus can be made to the High Courts by the confined person or by any person on his behalf.

Self Help

An unlawfully detained person can use self-help to escape. Self-help includes reasonable force. A person may use reasonable force to defend himself from an unlawful arrest. The force used must be proportionate and necessary in the circumstances, which means it should be the minimum needed force for the circumstances. This right is risky as the power to arrest is of both nature and is used not only for the commission of offence but in pursuance of law as well, when arresting in a reasonable suspicion thereof. Hence, an innocent person who forcibly resists can be liable for battery, if the arresting officer has reasonable grounds for his/her suspicion.


The right to personal liberty and freedom has been guaranteed by the Constitution under Articles 19, Article 20 and Article 21. The liberty of an individual is the utmost and prime responsibility of any state. Thus, a clear understanding of the nature of the offence and the available legal remedies is necessary. The state must thrive to act on such issues of false imprisonment more seriously and try to formulate more stringent laws in order to deter the ones performing such torts.

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