Interference with goods

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The law of Tort as it relates to wrongful interference with chattels (goods) is extremely complex, because it has developed in a piecemeal way over the last 500 years or so. The meanings of the various terms have changed over the years, and the various torts have expanded and contracted. This article attempts to explain the basic meaning of the various torts that are still (notionally) recognised, and their historical origins. However, please bear in mind that the true situation is much more complicated and, apart from conversion (see below), this area of law is probably more of interest to historians than lawyers.


In general, any interference with another person's goods not in the defendant's possession_ amounts to trespass to goods. I commit this tort if, for example, I intentionally scratch your car. If I scratch your car unintentionally, you will probably have to sue me in Negligence, not trespass, although there is some uncertainty about this -- historically any direct act could be a trespass, whether intentional or inadvertent.


The defendant commits trover if he finds something lost by another person, and keeps it without authorization. Probably trover originally arose as a counterpart to trespass to goods -- trover is not a trespass, because when I find the lost object, it comes into my possession, and I can't trespass against myself. Over the years the tort of trover expanded such that the losing and finding were assumed, so it was trover merely to retain someone else's property. It appears that eventually this variety of trover was subsumed mostly into the tort of conversion; the part that was not subsumed became detinue. See also treasure trove.


Detinue is the retention of someone else's goods without authorization. As the tort of conversion expanded, detinue became less important. Until 1977, detinue was only a separate tort if the goods came into the defendant's possession with the authority of the the claimant (that is, the defendant was the Bailee of the claimant), and they were subsequently lost, or stolen by a third party. This would not have been a conversion, because conversion requires a volitional act on the part of the defendant. The torts interference with goods act (1977) abolitioned detinue as a separate tort, and expanded conversion to encompass it.


Conversion is the taking of another person's goods for one's own use. If the claimant makes a Bailment of the goods to the defendant, no conversion is committed until the goods are not returned on specific request of the claimant. If the goods cannot be returned, because the defendant has lost them, this is now also a conversion under the 1977 Act; previously it would have been detinue.