Hounga v Allen and Another: SC 30 Jul 2014

The appellant, of Nigerian origin had been brought here at the age of 14 with false identity papers, and was put to work caring for the respondent’s children. In 2008 she was dismissed and ejected from the house. She brought proceedings alleging racial discrimination, but the only element of her claim which succeeded was of unfair dismissal, rejecting others saying that it had no jurisdiction. The defendants argued that the contract was unlawful, asking the Court: ‘In what circumstances should the defence of illegality defeat a complaint by an employee that an employer has discriminated against him by dismissing him contrary to section 4(2)(c) of the Race Relations Act 1976? ‘
Held: The claimant’s appeal was allowed. The defence of illegality of the employment of an illegal immigrant did not operate to defeat a claim of the tort of discrimination.
Lord Wilson set out a definition of human trafficking: ‘The accepted international definition of trafficking is contained in the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (‘the Palermo Protocol’) signed in 2000 and ratified by the UK on 9 February 2006. Article 3 provides:
‘(a) ‘Trafficking in persons’ shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability . . for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, . . sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs;
(b) The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) have been used;
(c) The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered ‘trafficking in persons’ even if this does not involve any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article’.’
Lord Wilson said: ‘The defence of illegality rests upon the foundation of public policy. ‘The principle of public policy is this . . ‘ said Lord Mansfield by way of preface to his classic exposition of the defence in Holman v Johnson (1775) 1 Cowp 341, 343. ‘Rules which rest upon the foundation of public policy, not being rules which belong to the fixed or customary law, are capable, on proper occasion, of expansion or modification’: Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Co Nordenfelt [1893] 1 Ch 630, 661 (Bowen LJ). So it is necessary, first, to ask ‘What is the aspect of public policy which founds the defence?’ and, second, to ask ‘But is there another aspect of public policy to which application of the defence would run counter?”
Lord Hughes said: ‘When a court is considering whether illegality bars a civil claim, it is essentially focussing on the position of the claimant vis-a-vis the court from which she seeks relief. It is not primarily focusing on the relative merits of the claimant and the defendant. It is in the nature of illegality that, when it succeeds as a bar to a claim, the defendant is the unworthy beneficiary of an undeserved windfall. But this is not because the defendant has the merits on his side; it is because the law cannot support the claimant’s claim to relief. ‘
Lord Toulson’s concluded generally:
‘Looking behind the maxims, there are two broad discernible policy reasons for the common law doctrine of illegality as a defence to a civil claim. One is that a person should not be allowed to profit from his own wrongdoing. The other, linked, consideration is that the law should be coherent and not self-defeating, condoning illegality by giving with the left hand what it takes with the right hand.’
Lord Toulson set out how the courts should approach the question:
‘So how is the court to determine the matter if not by some mechanistic process? In answer to that question I would say that one cannot judge whether allowing a claim which is in some way tainted by illegality would be contrary to the public interest, because it would be harmful to the integrity of the legal system, without (a) considering the underlying purpose of the prohibition which has been transgressed, (b) considering conversely any other relevant public policies which may be rendered ineffective or less effective by denial of the claim, and (c) keeping in mind the possibility of overkill unless the law is applied with a due sense of proportionality. We are, after all, in the area of public policy. That trio of necessary considerations can be found in the case law. . . The courts must obviously abide by the terms of any statute, but I conclude that it is right for a court which is considering the application of the common law doctrine of illegality to have regard to the policy factors involved and to the nature and circumstances of the illegal conduct in determining whether the public interest in preserving the integrity of the justice system should result in denial of the relief claimed. I put it in that way rather than whether the contract should be regarded as tainted by illegality, because the question is whether the relief claimed should be granted.’
Lord Toulson brought the elements together: ‘The essential rationale of the illegality doctrine is that it would be contrary to the public interest to enforce a claim if to do so would be harmful to the integrity of the legal system (or, possibly, certain aspects of public morality, the boundaries of which have never been made entirely clear and which do not arise for consideration in this case). In assessing whether the public interest would be harmed in that way, it is necessary (a) to consider the underlying purpose of the prohibition which has been transgressed and whether that purpose will be enhanced by denial of the claim, (b) to consider any other relevant public policy on which the denial of the claim may have an impact and (c) to consider whether denial of the claim would be a proportionate response to the illegality, bearing in mind that punishment is a matter for the criminal courts. Within that framework, various factors may be relevant, but it would be a mistake to suggest that the court is free to decide a case in an undisciplined way. The public interest is best served by a principled and transparent assessment of the considerations identified, rather by than the application of a formal approach capable of producing results which may appear arbitrary, unjust or disproportionate.’


Lady Hale, Deputy President, Lord Kerr, Lord Wilson, Lord Carnwath, Lord Hughes


[2014] UKSC 47, [2014] ICR 847, [2014] Eq LR 559, [2014] 4 All ER 595, [2014] 1 WLR 2889, [2014] IRLR 811, [2014] WLR(D) 353, UKSC 2012/0188


Bailii, Bailii Summary, WLRD, SC Summary, SC


England and Wales


At EATAllen (Nee Aboyade-Cole) v Hounga and Another EAT 31-Mar-2011
EAT JURISDICTIONAL POINTS – Fraud and illegality
The Claimant brought claims for unfair dismissal, breach of contract, unpaid wages and unpaid holiday pay as well as racial discrimination arising out of her . .
At CAHounga v Allen and Another CA 15-May-2012
. .
CitedBoulter v Clark 1747
A party to an illegal prize fight who is damaged in the conflict cannot sue for assault . .
CitedNational Coal Board v England HL 1954
The plaintiff sought damages after being injured when a co-worker fired a shot. The employee however had himself coupled the detonator to the cable rather than leaving it to the shotfirer, and had his cimmitted a criminal offence. He had been found . .
CitedSaunders v Edwards CA 24-Mar-1986
The parties had agreed for the sale and purchase of land and chattels, but had deliberately misdescribed the apportionment so as to reduce tax liability. The purchasers then brought an action for misrepresentation. The vendor replied that the action . .
CitedHoward v Shirlstar Container Transport Ltd CA 1990
The parties contracted for the recovery from Nigeria of an aircraft owned by the defendants which was being detained by the Nigerian authorities at Lagos. Under the contract, the plaintiff was entitled to recover a fee of andpound;25,000 if he . .
CitedCross v Kirkby CA 18-Feb-2000
The claimant was a hunt saboteur and the defendant a local farmer. The claimant shouted to the defendant ‘You’re fucking dead’ and jabbed him in the chest and throat with a broken baseball bat. In order to ward off further blows, the defendant . .
CitedHall v Woolston Hall Leisure Limited CA 23-May-2000
The fact that an employment contract was tainted with illegality of which the employee was aware, did not deprive the employee of the possibility of claiming rights which were due to her under a statute which created rights associated with but not . .
CitedEnfield Technical Services Ltd v Payne; Grace v BF Components Ltd EAT 25-Jul-2007
EAT Unfair dismissal – Exclusions including worker/jurisdiction
These two appeals consider the circumstances in which contracts will be considered illegal so as to preclude an employee from taking claims . .
CitedEnfield Technical Services Ltd v Payne and Another CA 22-Apr-2008
The appellant company appealed dismissal of their defence to a claim for unfair dismissal that the employment contract was tainted with illegality. The EAT had heard two cases with raised the question of the effect on unfair dismissal claims of . .
CitedV v Addey and Stanhope School CA 30-Jul-2004
The respondent resisted a claim of unfair dismissal and race discrimination on the basis that the employment contract was illegal since the claimant was an immigrant and unable to work without a work permit.
Held: The Court of Appeal upheld a . .
CitedHolman v Johnson 5-Jul-1775
ex turpi causa non oritur actio
A claim was made for the price of goods which the plaintiff sold to the defendant in Dunkirk, knowing that the defendant’s purpose was to smuggle the goods into England. The plaintiff was met with a defence of illegality.
Held: The defence . .
CitedHall v Hebert 29-Apr-1993
(Canadian Supreme Court) After they had been drinking heavily together, Mr Hebert, who owned a muscle car, allowed Mr Hall to drive it, including initially to give it a rolling start down a road on one side of which there was a steep slope. The car . .
CitedRegina v Lyons, Parnes, Ronson, Saunders HL 15-Nov-2002
The defendants had been convicted on evidence obtained from them by inspectors with statutory powers to require answers on pain of conviction. Subsequently the law changed to find such activity an infringement of a defendant’s human rights.
CitedRelaxion Group plc v Rhys-Harper; D’Souza v London Borough of Lambeth; Jones v 3M Healthcare Limited and three other actions HL 19-Jun-2003
The court considered whether discriminatory acts after the termination of employment were caught by the respective anti-discrimination Acts. The acts included a failure to give proper references. They pursued claims on the basis of victimisation . .
CitedSiliadin v France ECHR 26-Jul-2005
(French Text) A 15-year-old girl, had been brought from Togo to France and made to work for a family without pay for 15 hours a day. She had been held in servitude and required to perform forced labour
Held: France had violated article 4 by . .
CitedGray v Thames Trains and Others HL 17-Jun-2009
The claimant suffered psychiatric injury in a rail crash caused by the defendant’s negligence. Under this condition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the claimant had later gone on to kill another person, and he had been detained under section 41. . .
CitedRantsev v Cyprus And Russia ECHR 7-Jan-2010
A Russian woman, aged 20, had gone to work as an artiste in a cabaret in Cyprus. Three weeks later she was found dead in a street.
Held: The Court upheld her father’s complaint that Cyprus was in breach of article 4 in that its regime for the . .
CitedLM and Others v Regina; Regina v M(L), B(M) and G(D) CACD 21-Oct-2010
Each defendant appealed saying that being themselves the victims of people trafficking, the prosecutions had failed to take into account its obligations under the Convention.
Held: Prosecutors had ‘a three-stage exercise of judgment. The first . .
CitedCN v The United Kingdom ECHR 13-Nov-2012
The claimant said that having been raped repeatedly in Uganda, she had fled to England, where her passport was taken and she was forced to work and her earnings taken, and she was held captive. On escaping, her application for asylum was refused. . .
CitedL and Others v The Children’s Commissioner for England and Another CACD 21-Jun-2013
Even where it has been clearly established that a defendant had been trafficked that should not provide him with immunity from prosecution for a criminal offence. Lord Judge CJ explained that: ‘it has not, however, and could not have been argued . .

Cited by:

CitedReyes and Another v Al-Malki and Another CA 5-Feb-2015
The claimants wished to make employment law claims alleging, inter alia, that they had suffered racial discrimination and harassment, and had been paid less than the national minimum wage aganst the respondents. They had been assessed as having been . .
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 . .
CitedJetivia Sa and Another v Bilta (UK) Ltd and Others SC 22-Apr-2015
The liquidators of Bilta had brought proceedings against former directors and the appellant alleging that they were party to an unlawful means conspiracy which had damaged the company by engaging in a carousel fraud with carbon credits. On the . .
CitedTaiwo and Another v Olaigbe and Others SC 22-Jun-2016
The claimants had been brought here illegally to act as servants for the defendants. They were taken advantage of and abused. They made several claims, but now appealed against rejection of their claims for discrimination. The court was asked . .
CitedHenderson v Dorset Healthcare University NHS Foundation Trust CA 3-Aug-2018
Upon the allegedly negligent release of the claimant from mental health care, she had, while in the midst of a serious psychotic episode, derived from the schizophrenia, killed her mother and been convicted of manslaughter. She now sought damages in . .
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 . .
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.

Employment, Discrimination, Human Rights, Torts – Other

Updated: 29 April 2022; Ref: scu.535439