Criminal Law

The Law Of False Imprisonment  

Whilst it is pertinent to know our legal rights, it is even more important to know the extent of these rights, this write-up makes a conscious effort to point out our rights in respect of Freedom of movement; the questions that beg to be answered at this point; are as follows:

  • These rights if breached, are they enforceable? If yes,
  • To what extent? 
  • Are the victims entitled to damages or legal Remedies?

These questions are answered in the affirmative in this article.

What Is False Imprisonment In Law?

False imprisonment occurs when a person’s movement is unlawfully curtailed or restrained, by an arrest, confinement, or prevention of movement from place to place. 

It is an act orchestrated by a defendant who intentionally or negligently confines the movement of the claimant to an area defined by the defendant. It is worthy of note at this juncture that the tort of false imprisonment is actionable per se and must have happened as a result of the direct actions of the defendant, to give the plaintiff the right to institute a criminal or civil action against the defendant.

The claimant has a burden to prove certain elements before an action for false imprisonment can be successful. The elements include the following:

1.     Awareness of the claimant

False imprisonment can take place whether or not the claimant is aware of it at the time it occurs. Accordingly, Lord Atkin stated explicitly that “a person can be imprisoned while he is asleep, in the case of drunkenness, while unconscious, or while he is a lunatic.”

Thus, in the case of Meering vs. Grahame White Aviation Company Ltd[1],  the claimant was brought to his employer’s office to answer some questions in relation to a theft; two guards were stationed outside to prevent him from leaving the room. When the claimant found out, he sued for false imprisonment. Again, Lord Atkin held:

It appears to me that a person could be imprisoned without his knowledge. It is quite unnecessary to go on to show that in fact, the man knew that he was imprisoned”. 

Therefore, the defendants were liable for false imprisonment. It should be noted that whether or not a person is oblivious to the fact that he has been falsely imprisoned; if he has suffered no harm, he can only be entitled to nominal damages.

2. The Nature Of The Act:

There must be total or absolute restraint such that there is no means of escape. If there is a reasonable means of escape, it cannot amount to false imprisonment; this was judicially decided in the case of Meering vs Graham White Aviation Company Ltd[2]

Furthermore, the above-stated position was strengthened in the case of Bird.v.Jones, when the court decided that for an act to qualify for false imprisonment, the area of confinement should be one that has been fixed by the defendant and there is no reasonable way for the plaintiff to escape.

3. The State of Mind of the Defendant:

This means that to prove false imprisonment, the defendant must intend to do the act which resulted in false imprisonment. However, if a person is imprisoned even with good intentions, there would still be a liability for false imprisonment.

In the case of R vs Governor of Brockhill Prison Exparte Evans[3], where the time of imprisonment of a convict was wrongfully calculated. Thus, the convict spent extra time in prison, it was held that this resulted in false imprisonment.

Consequently, it is settled law that a person whose fundamental right has been infringed can vividly sue for damages in monetary forms. It is equally the law that what gives rise to the cause of action is not the damages claimed but the injury complained of.

To this end, see the case of Amao Vs Oniro[4], where it was held thus: –

“ …. An action for false imprisonment is an action for injuria sine damnum; that in plain terms refers to damages without injury. A Plaintiff need not give evidence of damages to establish the cause of action.”

See also Minister of Internal Affairs Vs Shugaba Abdulrahaman Darman[5]

By section 35(6) of the 1999 Constitution.  The law is that any person who is unlawfully arrested or detained shall be entitled to compensation and public apology from the appropriate authority or person, and the appropriate authority or person means that which is specified by law.  

[1] (1919) 122,

[2] Supra

[3] No 2 (2001 )2 AC 19

[4]  (1064) NWLR 130

[5]  (1982) 3 NWLR


About Justina Kaka Okong

J.K. Okong is a Nigerian attorney who specializes in human rights, entertainment law, data protection, and intellectual property law. She received her law degree from the prestigious University of Calabar and studied at the Lagos branch of the Nigerian Law School. In 2021, she was admitted to the Nigerian Bar. She is an associate attorney at Lawbond Solicitors Abuja.