Scots Law News was somewhat surprised by the outcome of the House of Lords consideration of Watkins v Home Office [2006] UKHL 17, published on 29 March.  The facts are graphically described at paras 67-68 of Lord Walker’s speech:


67. [O]n three separate occasions (on 17 September 1998 and 5 October 1998 at Wakefield Prison, and on 5 December 2000 at Frankland Prison) three different prison officers, deliberately and in bad faith, broke the Prison Rules by opening or reading correspondence addressed to the respondent, Mr Watkins, (on the first two occasions) by his solicitors and (on the third occasion) by the Durham County Court. In the first incident the officer took out and inspected the contents of one package which had already been opened, and opened and inspected the other in front of the respondent. His protest was met by the comment so report me to John Major (the prison officer cannot have taken much interest in current affairs). In the second incident the officer proceeded to rip open a letter in front of him. In the third incident the officer read documents likely to relate to proceedings in which he (the officer) was a defendant (the officer’s evidence of his ignorance of the proceedings was disbelieved, as he had signed a statement of truth on his defence).

68.  Each of these incidents was an immediate and intentional breach of the respondent’s right to unimpeded access to the court, either directly or through his solicitors. In its impact on the respondent each incident was likely to be much the same as an actual assault which occasioned no lasting harm, such as a slap in the face. Whether or not the respondent suffered distress or depression as a result (and the judge commented that he appeared to thrive on these conflicts) it was an affront, and a deliberate affront, at which he was entitled to feel real indignation.


The House holds that the prisoner so treated has no remedy under the tort of misfeasance of public office” because he has suffered no damage that the law will recognise.  Remedies lie only in proceedings for judicial review (with no prospect of damages)