Misfeasance in public office

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Misfeasance in public office is a cause of action in the civil courts of England and Wales and certain Commonwealth countries. It is an action against the holder of a public office, alleging in essence that the office-holder has misused or abused their power.[1] The tort can be traced back to 1703 when Chief Justice Sir John Holt decided that a landowner could sue a police constable who deprived him of his right to vote (Ashby v White).[2] The tort was revived in 1985 when it was used so that French turkey producers could sue the Ministry of Agriculture over a dispute that harmed their sales.

Generally, a civil defendant will be liable for misfeasance if the defendant owed a duty of care toward the plaintiff, the defendant breached that duty of care by improperly performing a legal act, and the improper performance resulted in harm to the plaintiff.

In theory, misfeasance is distinct from nonfeasance. Nonfeasance is a failure to act that results in harm to another party. Misfeasance, by contrast, is some affirmative act that, though legal, causes harm. In practice, the distinction is confusing and uninstructive. Courts often have difficulty determining whether harm resulted from a failure to act or from an act that was improperly performed.


In most cases, the essentials to bring an action of misfeasance in public office are that the office-holder acted illegally, knew they were doing so, and knew or should reasonably have known that third parties would suffer loss as a result.[3]


As a civil law action, the use of misfeasance of public office has grown in recent years, the law having been clarified in the litigation involving the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. The ruling clarified that there are two types of misfeasance in public office. One known as "targeted malice" occurs when a public officer intentionally abuses their position with the motive of inflicting damage upon the claimant.[4] The second is termed "untargeted malice"; this is committed by a public official who acts in a generalized way, knowing that they are not legally empowered to do the act complained of.[2]

If misfeasance in public office did not tenuously exist as an historical survival, it is doubtful whether anyone would invent it, at least in the form of a tort.

Philip Allott, The Cambridge Law Journal, Vol. 60, No. 1. (Mar. 2001)[5]


In July 2005, 49,500 private shareholders of Britain's national railway infrastructure company Railtrack sued the Secretary of State for Transport for damages, alleging that in October 2001 the then holder of that office, Stephen Byers MP, had acted unlawfully in planning to put their company into administration on the grounds that it was insolvent.[6] The legal action failed because – as an action involving reflective loss – the shareholders had to prove, in addition to the grounds specified above, malice on the part of Byers. They did not have the evidence to do so.[7][8]

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  1. ^ Evans, R. C. (1982). "Damages for Unlawful Administrative Action: The Remedy for Misfeasance in Public Office". The International and Comparative Law Quarterly. 31 (4): 644. doi:10.1093/iclqaj/31.4.640. JSTOR 759402. The general principle should be that a public officer is one who discharges a duty in which performance the public are interested and who is paid out of funds provided by the public.
  2. ^ a b Finance (11 July 2005). "The 300-year-old beginnings of Byers' day in court". Telegraph. Retrieved 21 November 2013.
  3. ^ Davis, Jim (2010). "Misfeasance in Public Office, Exemplary Damages and Vicarious Liability" (PDF). Australian Institute of Administrative Law Forum (64). 61. Subsequently, the House of Lords, in Three Rivers District Council v Bank of England (No 3),35 agreed with the New Zealand Court of Appeal that it is necessary for the plaintiff to show that the defendant has acted in the knowledge that his or her act would probably injure the plaintiff.
  4. ^ Three Rivers District Council and Others v Governor and Company of The Bank of England (UKHL 18 MAY 2000) ("The case law reveals two different forms of liability for misfeasance in public office. First there is the case of targeted malice by a public officer i.e. conduct specifically intended to injure a person or persons.").Text
  5. ^ Allott, Philip (March 2001). "EC Directives and Misfeasance in Public Office". The Cambridge Law Journal. 60 (1): 5. doi:10.1017/S0008197301620610. JSTOR 4508734. Retrieved 25 August 2021.
  6. ^ "Railtrack shareholders accuse Byers". The Guardian. London. 27 June 2005. Retrieved 22 September 2020. Alleging ″targeted malice″, Mr Rowley said there had been conduct by a public officer which was on the face of it lawful, but which was rendered unlawful by his acting in bad faith with the intention of injuring a person, or persons, or class of persons.
  7. ^ Weir & Ors v Secretary of State for Transport & Anor, 2192 Ch, 285 (EWHC 2005) ("(Mr Justice Lindsay) ...As I say, no direct evidence was given that he had that intent, no good reason why he should have had it was established and there were many and various other and acceptable reasons why he should have acted as he did. In all the circumstances I am quite unable to hold that he had the required intent.").
  8. ^ Osborne, Alistair (15 October 2005). "′Embarrassing stink′ that will track back to Westminster". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 22 September 2020. To prove their case, Sumption said, they would have to prove Byers deliberately made Railtrack insolvent ″with the specific aim of harming the shareholders″. After a summer′s deliberation, Mr Justice Lindsay decided the shareholders could not prove that.

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