Perry v British Railways Board [1980] 1 WLR 1375

Key Point

  • Temporary withholding of goods can amount to conversion
  • Specific delivery can be ordered for generic goods (steel) in exceptional circumstances when the goods are not freely available in the market

Facts

  • D (the British Railway Board) refused to allow C company to take delivery of its steel because they feared retaliation from their own employees who were supporting strikes by steelworkers
  • D told C that they could have it back when the strike ends
  • D did not assert that the steel was theirs but only that they could have it later

Held (High Court, Chancery Division)

  • The tort of conversion was committed by D
  • Specific delivery was ordered

Megarry V-C

Was there conversion?

  • D is denying C most of the rights of ownership including the right to possession for a period which is clearly indefinite
  • A denial of possession to C does not cease to be a denial by being accompanied by a statement that C is entitled to the possession
  • The fear of industrial action was not a justification for temporary withholding of the steel
    • This is no brief withholding made merely in order that Ds may verify C’s title to the steel or for some other purpose to confirm that the delivery of the steel would be proper
    • The fear of unpleasant consequences is not justification

Specific delivery was ordered

  • A principle is that delivery will not be ordered when goods are the ordinary articles of commerce with no special value or interest whether to C or others
  • If C can easily replace goods detained by purchasing their equivalent on the market, then payment of damages of the equivalent price is adequate compensation
  • In normal times, steel might be in this category, but these times are not normal and at present steel is barely available on the market
  • If what is detained is unobtainable damages are inadequate
  • In exercising discretion, considerations of C and D have to be balanced against each other
  • In the current case the fear of industrial action is not a strong enough justification
  • Rights cannot be curtailed by fears of disorder which include fears of unlawful assemblies and breaches of peace