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Understanding the concept of False Imprisonment under Torts law

There have been a lot of recent cases in the country, whereby the liberty of a person was compromised in the veil of punishment without an appropriate legal rationale. In terms of an example, the arrest of a Bengaluru-based Disha Ravi, merely on the basis of sharing a toolkit on twitter for which she was alleged to be having disaffection towards the government, serves as a valid case study on this front.

The basic notion of law is to provide legitimate freedom to the people and prevent the state from using unruly methods to restrict their freedom. 'False imprisonment' as a concept was brought forward in the case of "Serra vs Lappin"[1] whereby the court stated that false imprisonment is the non-consensual confinement of a person devoid of any legal backing. The various elements of false imprisonment include a) Total Restraint; b) Intentional detention; c) Lack of legal justification.

However, a pertinent point to note is that there is a subtle difference between "wrongful imprisonment" and "wrongful restraint" under the ambit of Indian laws. While the former involves 'total restraint' to be constituted upon an individual, whereas 'partial restraint' is enough to constitute the latter[2], which are punished under Section 340[3] and 339[4] of the Indian Penal Code ('IPC'), respectively.

The aim of this article is to acquaint the readers with the concept of "False imprisonment" and its basic tenets, in light of the landmark judicial precedents and the recent socio-political developments as highlighted through various newspaper and academic publications. A tort law perspective, vis-a-vis several relevant criminal and civil legislation shall be discussed in this regard.

Elements constituting false imprisonment
Total Restraint:
For constituting an act as false imprisonment, it is necessary that the restraint on a person's liberty must be complete.[5] This highlights the notion that there must not be any scope for the person to escape the restraint at the hands of the individual that has exercised the same. A partial restraint can never result in False imprisonment. This was highlighted in the case of Bird v. Jones[6] where the plaintiff was prevented from walking into an enclosure created by the defendant for viewing the boat race but the court rejected the plaintiff's claim of false imprisonment since he had other routes available and was free to leave the enclosure.

Intentional Detention:
One of the necessary components to constitute false imprisonment is 'willful' or 'intentional' detention. A person cannot be made liable for false imprisonment if there is a lack of motive/intention in the course of committing the act. Therefore, under this tort, malice holds no value, and it depends upon the judges to determine the intention of the defendant via examining the circumstances and evidence(s) available.[7]

Absence of lawful justification:
The restraint must not have any legal backing or just reasoning to constitute this tort. The presence of a lawful justification nullifies the claim of false imprisonment.[8] This was also brought forward in the case of Rudul Sah v. State of Bihar[9] where the petitioner was unlawfully confined in jail for years despite his acquittal and the State was made liable for false imprisonment.

Landmark case associated with false imprisonment
Bhim Singh vs. State of Jammu and Kashmir[10]:
The facts of the case are as follows: Mr Bhim Singh, an MLA of Jammu and Kashmir was en route to Srinagar on 10th September 1985. He was arrested and put into police custody at Qazi Kund allegedly under Section 153-A of Ranbir Penal Code ('RPC') for delivering seditious statements at a public meeting. He was produced before the magistrate on 13th September (three days after his arrest), and was also barred from voting at the assembly elections, infringing his right to vote.

The issues involved in this case are as follows:
  1. Whether the detention was illegal and qualifies for false imprisonment?;
  2. Whether the civil liberties of the plaintiff can be violated in the veil of imprisonment?
  3. Whether the plaintiff's fundamental rights were violated?

The petitioner was Mr Bhim Singh, while the respondents were represented by Inspector General, Shri M.M. Khajuria and Superintendent of Police, Anantnag, Shri M.A. Mir. The division bench of the Supreme court comprises O. Chinnapa Reddy and V. Khalid.

The Supreme Court ('SC') held that the police official, in this case, acted arbitrarily, and violated the rights of Mr Bhim Singh by illegally detaining him and not producing him before the magistrate within the required 24 hours timeline. The magistrate also acted with a casual attitude by ordering for remand without the production of the plaintiff. Further, the SC also reminded the duties of police officials to respect the civil liberties of citizens rather than becoming depredators of it.
In light of the precedents in Rudul Sah[11] and Sebastian Hongray[12] cases, the SC held imprisonment with malicious intent and a gross violation of the fundamental rights.

Defences and remedies available against false imprisonment
Lawful arrest:
When the arrest has required legal backing, and if it is established that there was a lawful cause behind the same, the act would not amount to false imprisonment.[13] This defence was also put forward in the case of Robinson Balmain v. New Ferry Co. Ltd.[14], where the plaintiff was prevented from going out of the wharf without paying the required fee as per the rules. However, since the cause was lawful, the defendant succeeded with the defence of a lawful arrest.

Consent to restraint:
A case of false imprisonment cannot be made out if the person consented to the restraint upon his/her liberty.[15] This defence is also postulated by the maxim, "Volenti nonfit injuria" which translates to "to a willing person, it is not a wrong" that is, if a person knowingly and voluntarily agrees to the risk, he cannot complain of the damages resulting from that risk.

Probable cause:
If there is a probable cause present which can lead a man of ordinary prudence to believe that the person accused is guilty of the offence, it will act as a defence against the tort of false imprisonment since it is believed that the defendant was acting in support of the law, thereby providing it with legal backing.

Habeas corpus:

The writ of Habeas corpus (literal meaning: "you shall have the body") issued by the SC and High Courts under Article(s) 32 and 226 of the Indian Constitution, respectively, act as an apt remedy for immediate release from wrongful detention being in either jail or private custody as the primary aim of this writ is to protect against unlawful detention of any sort.[16]

Claim for Damages:
A person aggrieved of false imprisonment can also claim damages as a form of remedy. The claim can only be made for the injuries and damages that occurred during the unlawful detention. Where there is mere unlawful detention, nominal damages can be claimed but in addition to unlawful detention, if the person goes through mental agony, fear, and suffering, compensatory damages will be given.[17]

Self Help:
The law allows a person who has been wrongfully confined, to use reasonable force in order to evade the confinement.[18] The force must not be in excess of the prevailing conditions. This remedy can be brought to force without the approval of the court of law, thus being an extra-judicial remedy.[19]

Recent cases associated with False Imprisonment
Analyzing the arrest of Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita, and Asif Iqbal Tanha:
All three of the JNU students were accused of being the masterminds of the Northeast Delhi riots held in February 2020 while opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act ("CAA"). Four FIRs were filed against Ms Kalita, three against Ms Narwal and one against Mr Tanha under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act ('UAPA')[20] for instigating riots and attempting to destabilize the government, as claimed by the Delhi Police and they have been in custody since May 2020.[21]

However, there were several lacunas in the investigation and trial procedure noticed by me during the analysis of this case, including the right to have a copy of the charge sheet as per Section 207 of The Code of Criminal Procedure (CRPC), they were not provided with a physical copy of the charge sheet in the jail, but just a softcopy which was inconvenient for them to access the soft copy at all times in jail. The trial judge noted that a hard copy of the charge sheet filed, irrespective of being voluminous, has to be provided to the accused keeping in mind the sanction of funds. Further, they were detained even before the investigation was completed overall and were denied bail. Finally, the Delhi High Court granted them bail via an order dated June 15, 2021.[22]

This case highlights the serious shortcomings in the arrest procedure of the accused and the hasty and casual imposition of draconian acts like UAPA without a reasonable cause.
The judges took precedence of a 2015 Delhi High Court order which states that the accused cannot be kept behind the bars for a minute after the verdict. In my reasonable opinion, this case typically amplifies the tort of false imprisonment, fulfilling the requisite elements for it, without having any legal justification.

Analyzing the arrest and prison terms of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown:
This case is about Henry McCollum and his half-brother Leon Brown, they both were arrested in 1983 when the body of an 11-year-old girl was found in a soybean field in North Carolina.[23] The case involved a lot of lacunas in the arrest procedure including that, they were arrested by merely acting upon rumours from a classmate with no evidence for the same.
After interrogation for hours with no lawyer present, they both were coerced to sign a pre-written confession alleging their role in the crime. Due to being intellectually disabled, they hardly understood a word of that confession and based upon that, they were sentenced to death.

No evidence ever connected both of them to the crime and they were held in prison for 30 years. Finally, it was found in 2014 that Roscoe Artis was behind this crime. Merely on their strangeness of action, they were coerced to sign the confession papers and were put behind the bars, without completing the requisite investigation procedure.[24]

However, they were released after 30 years, and paid compensation for their time in jail nonetheless, the question of their dignity being stripped down at the hands of the state remains pertinent.

In my opinion and analysis of this case, it clearly puts forward the tort of false imprisonment, without having the requisite legal justification. Issues discussed, in this case, were also brought forward in the Indian case of Ayodhya Dube & Ors. vs. Sumar Singh,[25] where it was propounded that "lack of judicial approach and inappropriate consideration of evidence gives rise to a miscarriage of justice".

The tort of False imprisonment has developed continuously with the changing scenarios and circumstances in the legal field. The tenets of false imprisonment try to prevent the authorities or any person for that matter from unlawfully restricting other person's liberty without their consent. This tort has been in light due to a bunch of wrongful conviction cases in the country, whereby the liberty of a person is infringed upon by the authorities in the name of punishment and sanction.

Arrest of students like- Umar Khalid, Disha Ravi and as discussed in this project about; Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita, and Asif Iqbal Tanha without completion of the investigation procedure by the law enforcement authorities and casual imposition of draconian acts like- UAPA and laws like- Sedition illustrates this tort by fulfilling all the necessary elements, which are:
  1. Total Restraint;
  2. Intentional Detention and
  3. Lack of Legal justification.
Several High Courts, as well as the Supreme Court, have criticized law enforcement officials for their hasty and casual attitude, claiming that they are obligated to work for, not against, societal welfare.

  1. Serra v. Lappin, 600 F.3d, 1191 (2010).
  2. R.K. BANGIA, THE LAW OF TORTS 174-175 (Narendra Kumar ed., 22nd ed. 2010).
  3. The Indian Penal Code, 1860, 340, No. 45, Acts of Parliament, 1860 (India).
  4. Id, 339.
  5. RATANLAL & DHIRAJLAL, THE LAW OF TORTS 283 (26th ed. 2010).
  6. Bird v. Jones [1845] 7 QB 742.
  7. John Murphy & Christian Witting, Street On Torts 270-271 (13th ed. 2012).
  8. Supra Note 2.
  9. Rudul Sah v. State of Bihar, (1983) 4 SCC 141.
  10. Bhim Singh v. State of J & K, (1985) 4 SCC 677.
  11. Supra Note 9.
  12. Sebastian M. Hongray v. Union of India, (1984) 1 SCC 339.
  13. Supra Note 2.
  14. Robinson v Balmain New Ferry Co Ltd [1910] AC 295.
  15. Supra Note 2.
  16. Supra Note 2.
  17. John Murphy & Christian Witting, Street On Torts 277-279 (13th ed. 2012).
  18. Supra Note 2.
  19. Supra Note 2.
  20. Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, No. 37, Acts of Parliament, 1967 (India).
  21. Soibam Rocky Singh, Student activists freed after court rejects Delhi Police stand, THE HINDU (Jun, 17, 2021),; Madan B. Lokur, Five questions on the shameful proceedings against Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita, Asif Iqbal, THE WIRE (Jun. 22, 2021),
  22. Devangana Kalita v. State (NCT of Delhi), 2021 SCC OnLine Del 45; Natasha Narwal v. State (Delhi of NCT), 2021 SCC OnLine Del 1960; Asif Iqbal Tanha v. State (NCT of Delhi), 2021 SCC OnLine Del 3253.
  23. Joseph Neff, They did 30 years for someone else's crime. Then paid for it, THE NEW YORK TIMES (Apr. 7, 2018),
  24. Sam Cabral, Does a $75m settlement make up for three decades in prison?, BBC NEWS (May 23, 2021),
  25. Ayodhya Dube v. Ram Sumer Singh, 1981 Supp SCC 83.

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