Nissan v The Attorney General: HL 11 Feb 1969

The plaintiff was a British subject with a hotel in Cyprus taken over by British troops on a peace-keeping mission. At first the men were there by agreement of the governments of Cyprus and the United Kingdom. Later they became part of a United Nations peace-keeping force. The plaintiff claimed compensation for the occupation of his hotel and damage allegedly done to his property by the British troops billeted there. Preliminary issues were tried which included the question whether the alleged actions of the British troops were acts of state so that no claim lay against the UK government.
Held: The defence of act of state was not available. While the making of the treaty (agreement) between the Cyprus government and the British, Greek and Turkish governments was an act of state and some acts done in performance of the treaty might be acts of state, the occupation of the hotel and the damage allegedly done to it were not sufficiently closely connected to the making of the treaty to fall within the scope of the doctrine.
The House considered the meaning of the phrase ‘act of state’. The way in which the government exercises its prerogatives in relation to foreign affairs and in its relations with foreign states does not give rise to rights which are cognisable by the domestic courts: ‘As regard such acts it is certainly the law that the injured person if an alien cannot sue in an British Court and can only have resort to diplomatic protest. How far this rule goes and how far it prevents resort to the courts by British subjects is not a matter on which clear authority exists.’
Lord Wilberforce cited the following definition of Crown acts of state: ‘An act of the executive as a matter of policy performed in the course of its relations with another state, including its relations with the subjects of that state, unless they are temporarily within the allegiance of the Crown.’ However: ‘This is less a definition than a construction put together from what has been decided in various cases; it covers as much ground as they do, no less, no more. It carries with it the warning that the doctrine cannot be stated in terms of a principle but developed from case to case.’
Lord Pearson said: ‘it is necessary to consider what is meant by the expression ‘act of state’, even if it is not expedient to attempt a definition. It is an exercise of sovereign power. Obvious examples are making war and peace, making treaties with foreign sovereigns, and annexations and cessations of territory. Apart from these obvious examples, an act of state must be something exceptional. Any ordinary governmental act is cognisable by an ordinary court of law (municipal not international): if a subject alleges that the governmental act was wrongful and claims damages or other relief in respect of it, his claim will be entertained and heard and determined by the court.’
Lord Reid said: ‘I think that a good deal of the trouble has been caused by using the loose phrase ‘act of state’ without making clear what is meant. Sometimes it seems to be used to denote any act of sovereign power or of high policy or any act done in the execution of a treaty. That is a possible definition, but then it must be observed that there are many such acts which can be the subject of an action in court if they infringe the rights of British subjects. Sometimes it seems to be used to denote acts which cannot be made the subject of inquiry in a British court. But that does not tell us how to distinguish such acts: it is only a name for a class which has still to be defined.’

Lord Reid, Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest, Lord Pearce, Lord Wilberforce, Lord Pearson
[1970] AC 179, [1969] UKHL 3
England and Wales
Cited by:
CitedMulcahy v Ministry of Defence CA 21-Feb-1996
A soldier in the Artillery Regiment was serving in Saudi Arabia in the course of the Gulf war. He was injured when he was part of a team managing a Howitzer, which was firing live rounds into Iraq, and he was standing in front of the gun when it was . .
CitedBici and Bici v Ministry of Defence QBD 7-Apr-2004
Claimants sought damages for personal injuries incurred when, in Pristina, Kosovo and during a riot, British soldiers on a UN peacekeeping expedition fired on a car.
Held: The incidents occurred in the course of peace-keeping duties. It was . .
CitedSmith, Regina (on The Application of) v Secretary of State for Defence and Oxfordshire Assistant Deputy Coroner (Equality and Human Rights Commission intervening) SC 30-Jun-2010
The deceased soldier died of heat exhaustion whilst on active service in Iraq. It was said that he was owed a duty under human rights laws, and that any coroner’s inquest should be a fuller one to satisfy the state’s duty under Article 2.
CitedBelhaj and Another v Straw and Others SC 17-Jan-2017
The claimant alleged complicity by the defendant, (now former) Foreign Secretary, in his mistreatment by the US while held in Libya. He also alleged involvement in his unlawful abduction and removal to Libya, from which had had fled for political . .

Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Torts – Other, Jurisdiction, Constitutional

Leading Case

Updated: 02 November 2021; Ref: scu.198143