Clayton v Le Roy [1911] 2 KB 1031

Key Point

  • Unlawful detention, coupled with an intention to detain, amount to conversion
  • In this case the acts of D did not sufficiently evince an intention to detain and thus there was no conversion


  • C owned a watch that was purchased from D
  • The watch was stolen, and eventually wound up with D when B sent it to verify its authenticity
  • D wrote to C that C would have to repurchase the watch
  • C commenced an action for either detinue or conversion by treating the letter as a refusal to give up the watch
  • C’s solicitor’s clerk asked to see the watch, and upon refusal by D, the writ of conversion was issued

Held (Court of Appeal)

  • C had no cause of action against D for conversion or detinue

Fletcher Moulton LJ

Detention of goods

  • “If there is a demand by the owner from the person in possession of the chattel and a refusal on the part of the latter to give it up, then in six years the remedy of the owner is barred; it is therefore very important for the owner that the law should lay down the principle that some clear act of that kind is required to constitute a cause of action in detinue. It would be mulcting the real owner of his rights, if the law did not thus insist upon some definite act or deliberate withholding as being necessary preliminaries to the arising of this cause of action.”

The letter

  • There is nothing in the language of the letter that indicates any intention to interfere with rights or detain

The writ

  • C’s solicitor’s clerk asked to see the watch, and upon refusal by D, the writ was issued, but the refusal was not unlawful; D was entitled to take adequate time to inquire into the rights of C


  • The tort of detinue is a historical tort which involves a claim of greater right to property than the defendant and the defendant refused to return the chattel upon request
  • It is now subsumed under the tort of conversion which has expanded in scope to cover the same factual circumstances