Bradford Corporation v Pickles

A summary of Bradford Corporation v Pickles (1895) case

  • Case name & citation: Bradford Corporation (Mayor of) v Pickles (1895) A.C. 587
  • Jurisdiction: The House of Lords, UK
  • Year of the case: 1895
  • The bench of judges: Lord Halsbury and Lord Watson

What is the case about?

The case of Bradford Corporation v Pickles throws light on the concept of damnum sine injuria and the extent to which malice is relevant in determining the liability in torts. It is one of the earliest cases which settled that motive is irrelevant in tort. The case explains that a lawful act does not become unlawful merely because of the presence of an evil motive.

Facts of the case (Bradford Corporation v Pickles)

In this case, the defendant, Mr. Pickles, owned a piece of land with underground streams that fed the plaintiff’s waterworks.

The defendant (by means of excavations) sank a shaft over his own land with an intention to intercept the underground water which was flowing into the adjoining reservoir of the plaintiffs. The sole objective behind doing so was to force the plaintiffs to buy his land.

Such an act by the defendant seriously affected water supplies to the plaintiff’s operations.

There was enough evidence to suggest that the defendant was acting in this manner not to gain an immediate advantage, but rather to deprive the plaintiffs of water flowing from his land.

The plaintiffs (Bradford Corporation) sought an injunction to prevent the defendant from sinking the shaft, claiming that the primary purpose of doing so was to harm the plaintiffs since they did not pay an exorbitant price for purchasing his land.

Issue raised

Can the use of a property that is otherwise legal become illegal if it is prompted by a motive that is malicious?

Can the contention of the plaintiffs that the defendant was not acting in good faith be considered in determining liability?

Relevant provisions

Damnum sine injuria states that damage caused without injury to a legal right does not give rise to any remedy under tort law. Causing damage to another person, no matter how serious, is not actionable in law unless there is also a breach of the legal right of the plaintiff.

And as far as malice is concerned, as a general rule, it is not relevant in the law of torts. For example, if a person has a right to do an act and it does not injure the legal right of another, then such an act cannot be made actionable merely by proving that the person’s motive in exercising his right was malice. In law, the liability should be determined not on the basis of the evil motive which prompted the doer of the act but based upon the unlawful character of the act done.  

Regardless of whether the damage caused is intentional, the exercise of a legal right of a person cannot be actionable in general.

Judgement of the Court in Bradford Corporation v Pickles

In the instant case, it was held that even though the harm to the plaintiffs has been caused maliciously, no action for the same can lie unless it is proved that the plaintiffs have suffered a legal injury owing to an illegal act of the defendant. That is, the plaintiffs must prove that there has been an infringement of their legal right. Unless such infringement is proved, no action can lie in tort even though the harm has been caused maliciously.

The Court observed that the plaintiffs had no cause of action because the defendant was exercising his own legal right even though his motive was to coerce the plaintiffs to buy his land.

It was decided as under:

“The plaintiffs have no cause unless they can show that they are entitled to the flow of water in question and that the defendant has no right to do what he is doing……”

The defendant was making lawful use of his land.

Therefore, it was held that it is the act, not the motive behind the act that should be considered. A malicious motive, by or in itself, does not give rise to an injuria or a legal wrong.

A similar case

In a similar case titled “Town Area Committee v Prabhu Dayal (AIR 1975 All. 132), it was observed that if a person constructs a building illegally and without obtaining appropriate sanctions, the demolition of such construction by the municipal authorities shall not result in an infringement of a legal right (injuria) of the owner of the property. This is regardless of whether the demolition of the building is motivated by malice or not.

Conclusion (Bradford Corporation v Pickles)

From the above case, it was deduced that if the defendant was exercising his legal right, he could not be made liable even though the act, which caused harm to the plaintiff, was done maliciously.

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