Bowmakers Ltd v Barnet Instruments Ltd: CA 1945

An action was brought for the wrongful conversion of machine tools delivered under hire purchase agreements which contravened wartime statutory orders. The plaintiff established its legal title to the goods at issue without relying upon the illegal contract pursuant to which it had hired the goods to the defendant. A party to an illegality can recover by virtue of a legal or equitable property interest if, but only if, he can establish his title without relying on his own illegality. The court stated the general rule that a man’s right to possession of an article will be enforced notwithstanding the fact that the article came into his possession by reason of an illegal contract. ‘a man’s right to possess his own chattels will as a general rule be enforced against one who, without any claim of right, is detaining them or has converted them to his own use, even though it may appear from the pleadings, or in the course of the trial, that the chattels in question came into the defendant’s possession by reason of an illegal contract between himself and the plaintiff, provided that the plaintiff does not seek, and is not forced, either to found his claim on the illegal contract or to plead its illegality in order to support his claim.’ and ‘It must not be supposed that the general rule which we have stated is subject to no exception. Indeed there is one obvious exception, namely that class of cases in which goods claimed are of such a kind that it is unlawful to deal in them at all, as for example, obscene books. No doubt there are others, but it is unnecessary, and would we think be unwise, to seek to name them all or to forecast the decisions which would be given in a variety of circumstances which may hereafter arise’.
‘We are satisfied that no rule of law, and no considerations of public policy, compel the court to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claim in the case before us, and to do so would be, in our opinion, a manifest injustice.’


du Parq LJ


[1945] KB 65


England and Wales


CitedCurtis v Perry 10-Mar-1802
Fraudulent Registrations Ineffective
Ships had been purchased by a partnership, but were then held separately in the name of one of them. Only later were they included within the partnership accounts, but the separate registrations were maintained, and unlawfully so as to avoid them . .

Cited by:

CitedTinsley v Milligan HL 28-Jun-1993
Two women parties used funds generated by a joint business venture to buy a house in which they lived together. It was vested in the sole name of the plaintiff but on the understanding that they were joint beneficial owners. The purpose of the . .
CitedCostello v Chief Constable of Derbyshire Constabulary CA 22-Mar-2001
The police seized a car from Mr Costello, believing that it was stolen. The seizure was lawful at the time, by virtue of section 19 of PACE. The police never brought any criminal proceedings against Mr Costello, but they refused to return the car to . .
CitedGray v Thames Trains Ltd and Another CA 25-Jun-2008
The claimant was a victim of the Ladbroke Grove rail crash. He later committed and was convicted of a manslaughter and detained under the 1983 Act. He said that the accident had caused a major personality change. The defendant relied on the defence . .
CitedLes Laboratoires Servier and Another v Apotex Inc and Others SC 29-Oct-2014
Ex turpi causa explained
The parties had disputed the validity a patent and the production of infringing preparations. The english patent had failed and damages were to be awarded, but a Canadian patent remained the defendant now challenged the calculation of damages for . .
CitedPatel v Mirza SC 20-Jul-2016
The claimant advanced funds to the respondent for him to invest in a bank of which the claimant had insider knowledge. In fact the defendant did not invest the funds, the knowledge was incorrect. The defendant however did not return the sums . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Equity, Contract, Torts – Other

Leading Case

Updated: 02 May 2022; Ref: scu.194100