False Imprisonment Law in the UK

False imprisonment law concerns the unlawful deprivation of an individual’s liberty. Understanding what constitutes false imprisonment is a vital first step for those working in law enforcement or those who believe they may have been held or detained unlawfully.

In this post, we will review what the tort of false imprisonment is and what comprises false imprisonment claims.

What Is Unlawful Imprisonment?

False imprisonment is the total restraint of the liberty of a person by the use or threat of force or by confinement, in the absence of lawful justification, for any length of time.

Whether circumstances amount to false imprisonment is a question of fact. The restraint must be total; compelling a person to remain in a place would be imprisonment, but obstructing them from passing in a specific direction or preventing them from passing in any direction save for one would not. In practice, most claims hinge upon whether the defendant can demonstrate lawful justification for the claimant’s restriction of liberty.

In the context of actions against the police, false imprisonment claims typically arise where an individual has been arrested without lawful justification (wrongful arrest). However, unlawful imprisonment claims against the police also arise in situations short of arrest. These include unlawful stop and search, informally restricting an individual to a confined space for questioning or leading an individual to believe they cannot leave in situations where they are not under arrest.

In addition to the police, other entities which can be successfully sued for unlawful imprisonment include hospitals, prisons, immigration centres, and retail security staff.

If you have been unlawfully imprisoned or have been accused of unlawfully imprisoning an individual, you should seek immediate legal assistance.

False Imprisonment Charges and Claims

In a claim for false imprisonment, the claimant only needs to prove that they were detained. Their detention does not have to be physical – they may have been told they are under arrest or led to believe they must remain with the police or risk consequences.

The burden of proof then shifts to the police to prove that the claimant’s detention was lawful. In wrongful arrest cases, the arresting officer must demonstrate they honestly suspected an offence had been or was about to be committed, and that they honestly believed the arrest was necessary. The grounds for both the suspicion and belief in the necessity of arrest must also be objectively reasonable. Whenever an officer fails to satisfy this two-part statutory test (S24 of PACE), the arrest will be unlawful, and the period of detention would constitute false imprisonment.

In cases of illegal stop and search, the statutory powers relied on by the searching officer are subjected to similar scrutiny. If the search was conducted without reasonable cause, the claimant’s detention, whilst often only a few minutes, would amount to false imprisonment.

Officers making arrests or conducting searches must explain their grounds for doing so in simple, non-technical language. A failure to comply with these formalities may also render the detention period unlawful, giving rise to a claim for false imprisonment.

Recently, St Pauls’ Ayman Khokhar successfully represented a claimant at Trial who was taken into custody and held for 18 hours before being released with no further action being taken. Mr Khokhar was able to demonstrate that the arresting officers lacked reasonable grounds to suspect the claimant had committed an offence. As a result, the claimant was awarded damages for her false imprisonment.

Police Detention and False Imprisonment Law

A claim for false imprisonment may also arise where, although the original arrest was lawful, the length of the subsequent detention was excessive, or procedural requirements of the detention were not complied with.

As stated by Lord Denning in Mercier v Chief Constable of Lancashire [1991]:

What may originally have been lawful detention may become unlawful because of its duration or of a failure to comply with the complex provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and in particular sections 34 to 42.”

Whilst someone is detained in custody, there is an obligation for their detention to be periodically reviewed as to whether it continues to be necessary. Such reviews are required to be carried out by an officer of Inspector rank or above. The burden is on the defendant to justify the period of detention, minute-by-minute.

Detainee rights while in custody include free legal advice, the ability to tell someone where they are, medical help if they are ill and seeing a written notice of their rights in a language they can understand (or an interpreter to explain it).

Damages in False Imprisonment Cases

The length of any period of unlawful imprisonment influences the level of compensation following a successful claim. The case of Thompson v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (1997) provided guidelines rates which are uplifted to take account of inflation.

The first hour of detention currently leads to awards of around £1,000 with a sliding scale thereafter up to the 24-hour mark which attracts compensation in the region of £6,000.

It is not uncommon in these cases for Courts to further award aggravated and/or exemplary damages where it can be shown the police behaved arbitrarily or oppressively or where general damages are deemed insufficient to fully compensate the claimant.

False Imprisonment Claims with St Pauls Chambers

Members of our chambers have extensive experience in civil actions against the police, police law and police discipline and regulation, so you know that your case is in the best hands. Our barristers will advocate for you to ensure that the best possible outcome is achieved, however simple or complex the case.

If your client has been falsely imprisoned or accused of false imprisonment, please contact us today to talk to one of our experienced false imprisonment law barristers. In cases where the police detention may have been intentional and unwarranted, please see our post on malicious prosecution law.

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