Imperial Tobacco Ltd v Attorney-General: HL 1980

The applicant sought a declaration as to the lawfulness of a lottery scheme whilst criminal proceedings were pending against it for the same scheme.
Held: It was not necessary to decide whether a declaration as to the criminality or otherwise of future conduct can ever properly be made by a civil court. It would be a very exceptional case in which it would be right to do so.
Viscount Dilhorne: ‘Donaldson J thought [the Court] could [grant a declaration] but did not grant it as he thought that the . . . scheme was a lottery and an unlawful competition. The Court of Appeal, holding that it was neither, granted it. That decision, if it stands, will form a precedent for the Commercial Court and other civil courts usurping the functions of the criminal courts. Publishers may be tempted to seek declarations that what they propose to publish is not a criminal libel or blasphemous or obscene. If in this case where the declaration sought was not in respect of future conduct but in respect of what had already taken place, it could properly be granted, I see no reason why in such cases a declaration as to future conduct could not be granted. If this were to happen, then the position could be much the same as it was before the passing of Fox’s Libel Act 1792 when judges, not juries, decided whether a libel was criminal, blasphemous or obscene.’ and ‘. . . it is not necessary in this case to decide whether a declaration as to the criminality or otherwise of future conduct can ever properly be made by a civil court. In my opinion it would be a very exceptional case in which it would be right to do so. In my opinion it cannot be right to grant a declaration that an accused is innocent after a prosecution has started.’ and ‘Such a declaration is no bar to a criminal prosecution, no matter the authority of the court which grants it . . such a declaration in a case such as the present one, made after the commencement of the prosecution, and in effect a finding of guilt or innocence of the offence charged, cannot found a plea of autrefois acquit or autrefois convict, though it may well prejudice the criminal proceedings . . if a civil court of great authority declares on admissions made by the accused that no crime has been committed, one can foresee the use that might be made of that at the criminal trial . . I think that the administration of justice would become chaotic if, after the start of a prosecution, declarations of innocence could be obtained from a civil court. ‘
Lord Lane considered that there was jurisdiction to grant a declaration ‘in these circumstances’ but ‘Counsel appearing before your Lordships’ House were unable to find any case in which a defendant in criminal proceedings already properly and not vexatiously instituted had applied for a declaration that the criminal proceedings were unfounded or based on a misapprehension as to the true meaning of the criminal statute. I do not find that dearth of authority surprising. It would be strange if a defendant to proper criminal proceedings were able to pre-empt those proceedings by application to a judge of the High Court . . .what effect in law upon the criminal proceedings would any pronouncement from the High Court in these circumstances have? The criminal court would not be bound by the decision.’


Viscount Dilhorne, Lord Scarman, Lord Edmund-Davies, Lord Fraser of Tullybelton, Lord Lane


[1980] 1 All ER 866, HL(E), [1980] 2 WLR 466, [1981] AC 718


England and Wales

Cited by:

CitedFinancial Services Authority v Rourke ChD 19-Oct-2001
The applicant sought a declaration that the defendant had acted in breach of the Act, in accepting sums by way of deposit, without being authorised, and had made prohibited statements to attract such deposits. Could a civil court make such a finding . .
CitedAttorney-General v Able and Others QBD 28-Apr-1983
The Attorney General sought a declaration as to whether it would be the crime of aiding and abetting or counselling and procuring suicide, to distribute a booklet published by the respondent which described various effective ways of committing . .
CitedAiredale NHS Trust v Bland HL 4-Feb-1993
Procedures on Withdrawal of Life Support Treatment
The patient had been severely injured in the Hillsborough disaster, and had come to be in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). The doctors sought permission to withdraw medical treatment. The Official Solicitor appealed against an order of the Court . .
CitedRegina v Her Majesty’s Attorney General ex parte Rusbridger and Another HL 26-Jun-2003
Limit to Declaratory Refilef as to Future Acts
The applicant newspaper editor wanted to campaign for a republican government. Articles were published, and he sought confirmation that he would not be prosecuted under the Act, in the light of the 1998 Act.
Held: Declaratory relief as to the . .
CitedI-CD Publishing Ltd v The Secretary of State, The Information Commissioner (Interested Party) Admn 21-Jul-2003
The claimant sought judicial review challenging the restrictions on the sale of electoral registers to registered credit reference agencies. Following Robertson (1) the new regulations created two registers, and the claimant sought to be able to . .
CitedRusbridger and Another v Attorney General CA 20-Mar-2002
The paper wanted to publish an article about the monarchy but was concerened that it might lead to it being prosecuted under the 1848 Act. The complainant sought declarations as to the incompatibility of the 1848 Act with the 1998 Act.
Held: . .
CitedLevey, Regina v CACD 27-Jul-2006
The defendant appealed against his conviction of manslaughter of his baby son. He said that a family court had previously investigated the same allegations and had explicitly found itself unable to say which of himself and the mother were . .
CitedRegina v Belmarsh Magistrates’ Court ex parte Fiona Watts Admn 8-Feb-1999
The defendant sought to have dismissed as an abuse of proces charges against her that as an officer of Customs and Excise prosecuting the now private prosecutor, she had committed various offences.
Held: The magistrate was vested with . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Criminal Practice

Updated: 28 April 2022; Ref: scu.180317