Burmah Oil Company (Burma Trading) Limited v Lord Advocate: HL 21 Apr 1964

The General Officer Commanding during the war of 1939 to 1945 ordered the appellants oil installations near Rangoon to be destroyed. The Japanese were advancing and the Government wished to deny them the resources. It was done on the day before the Japanese occupied Rangoon. The question was, whether compensation was payable for this destruction.
Held: The Government were exercising a prerogative power which required them to pay compensation. However, their Lordships distinguished this situation from one where property was damaged or destroyed during the course of battle: (Lord Reid) ‘In my judgment, those authorities and others quoted in their opinions afford ample justification for the decision of the First Division with regard to the general rule, and no contrary Scots authority has been cited. This case therefore turns, in my view, on the extent of the exception of what has been called battle damage. Such damage must include both accidental and deliberate damage done in the course of fighting operations. It cannot matter whether the damage was unintentional or done by our artillery or aircraft to dislodge the enemy or by the enemy to dislodge our troops. And the same must apply to destruction of a building or a bridge before the enemy actually capture it. Moreover, it would be absurd if the right to compensation for such a building or bridge depended on how near the enemy were when it was destroyed. But I would think that Vattel is right in contrasting acts done deliberately (librement et par precaution) with damage caused by inevitable necessity (par une necessite inevitable). His examples show that he means something dictated by the disposition of the opposing forces. It may become necessary during the war to have new airfields or training grounds and the necessity may be inevitable, but that kind of thing would not come within the exception as stated by any of the commentators, inevitably necessary because there is really no choice: for example, there may be only one factory in the country or one site available for a particular purpose.’
The House discussed the use of the Royal prerogative: ‘The prerogative is really a relic of a past age, not lost by disuse, but only available for a case not covered by statute. So I would think the proper approach is a historical one: how was it used in former times and how has it been used in modern times?’ and (per lord Reid) ‘[T]he residual prerogative is now confined to such matters as summoning and dissolving Parliament, declaring war and peace, regulating the armed forces in some respects, governing certain colonial territories, making treaties (though as such they cannot affect the rights of subjects), and conferring honours. The one drastic internal power of an administrative kind is the power to intern enemy aliens in time of war.’
The House considered the right to self help in an emergency. Lord Upjohn said ‘No doubt in earlier times the individual had some . . rights of self-help or destruction in immediate emergency, whether caused by enemy action or by fire, and the legal answer was that he could not in such circumstances be sued for trespass on or destruction of his neighbour’s property. Those rights of the individual are now at least obsolescent. No man now, without risking some action against him in the courts, could pull down his neighbour’s house to prevent the fire spreading to his own; he would be told that he ought to have dialled 999 and summoned the local fire brigade.’
Lord Reid said ‘it would be very strange if the law prevented or discouraged necessary preparations until a time when it would probably be too late for them to be effective’.
Lord Pearce said: ‘the prerogative power in the emergency of war must be one power, whether the peril is merely threatening or has reched the ultimate stage of crisis. Bulwarks are as necessary for the public safety when they are constructed in good time against a foreseen invasion as when they are hastily improvised after the enemy has landed. The Crown must have power to act before the ultimate crisis arises’.


Lord Upjohn, Lord Reid, Lord Pearce


[1965] AC 75, [1965] AC 75, [1965] 2 All ER 348, 1964 SC (HL) 117, [1964] UKHL 6, [1964] 2 WLR 1231, 1964 SLT 218




War Damage Act 1965




Appeal fromBurmah Oil Company Limited (Burma Trading) v Lord Advocate IHCS 1963
The 1965 Act was to be construed restrictively, lest ‘what was intended as a reasonable protection for a public authority would become an engine of oppression.’ . .

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Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Armed Forces, Constitutional

Updated: 27 October 2022; Ref: scu.241353