Seal v. Chief Constable of South Wales Police [2007] UKHL 31

MENTAL DISORDER — Leave to bring proceedings — Civil proceedings — Police officers removing claimant to place of safety — Claimant bringing action against officers without obtaining leave of High Court — Whether failure to obtain leave rendering proceedings nullity — Mental Health Act 1983, s 139(2). It was a mandatory requirement to obtain the leave of the High Court, pursuant to s 139(2) of the Mental Health Act 1983, before bringing civil proceedings in respect of any act purporting to be done in pursuance of that Act, and proceedings issued without obtaining such leave first were rendered a nullity.


The House of Lords so held (Lord Woolf and Baroness Hale dissenting) in dismissing an appeal by the claimant, Robert Edward Seal from a decision of the Court of Appeal (Clarke, Scott Baker LJJ and Ouseley J), dated 19 May 2005 [2005] 1 WLR 3183B, dismissing his appeal from a decision of Judge Graham Jones, sitting at Swansea County Court on 18 October 2004, varying an order made by District Judge Singh, sitting at the Merthyr Tydfil County Court on 5 July 2005, which struck out the claimant’s claims against the defendant, the Chief Constable of South Wales.

LORD BINGHAM said that ever since a requirement for leave in such circumstances had first been introduced in 1930 there had been a clear consensus of judicial, professional and academic opinion that lack of the required leave rendered proceedings null, and Parliament had to be taken to have passed the 1983 Act on that basis. It had to be accepted that a strict rule might bear hardly on some litigants, of whom the claimant might be one. But if the claimant had issued proceedings before the very end of the six-year limitation period his failure to obtain leave, while it might have caused him delay and vexation, would not have debarred him from prosecuting his claim. Thus the provision which effectively denied him the opportunity to proceed was not s 139 of the 1983 Act but s 2 of the Limitation Act 1980. Parliament must, in legislating as it did, have recognised the risk that hard cases, such as the claimant’s, might occur, but had considered the occasional occurrence of such a case to be a price worth paying for the reassurance and protection given by s 139 of the 1983 Act to those whose very important and often difficult task it was to care for the mentally ill. The claimant’s undoing lay not in his failure to obtain leave but in his failure to proceed within the generous time limit allowed by the 1980 Act.

LORD BROWN delivered a concurring opinion. LORD CARSWELL agreed. LORD WOOLF and BARONESS HALE delivered dissenting opinions.


Seal v Chief Constable of South Wales Police [2007] UKHL 31B

HL(E): Lord Bingham of Cornhill, Lord Woolf, Baroness Hale of Richmond, Lord Carswell and Lord Brown of Eaton under Heywood: 4 July 2007

Appearances: Robert McCracken QC and Adam Solomon (Fisher Meredith, Kennington) for the claimant; Jeremy Johnson and Lucinda Boon (Dolmans, Cardiff) for the defendant.

Reported by: B L Scully, barrister

Related cases

Seal v UK 50330/07 [2010] ECHR 1976



ICLR report (2007) WLR (D) 185 - The ICLR have kindly agreed for their case report to be used on this page.