Misfeasance in public office explained (UK)

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Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

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If you are found guilty of the offence of misfeasance in public office, you face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

The offence involves a public official acting in contravention of their position of authority, resulting in harm, injury, financial loss or damage to a third party.

Nick Titchener, director and solicitor advocate at Lawtons Solicitors, discusses:

  1. The definition of misfeasance in public office
  2. Misfeasance and the law
  3. What to do if you are accused of misfeasance in public office

What is misfeasance defined as in the UK?

A form of misconduct, misfeasance in public office occurs when a public official, public servant or public body knowingly and willingly acts in a manner with the realisation that their actions are likely to cause loss or harm to another. The action is legal, but is performed in a way that harms another.

Misfeasance is often confused with negligence, whereby an individual does not carry out their role or responsibilities with a correct level of care which results in harm to another.

Negligence  generally involves harm to another as a result of carelessness, error or lack of judgement, whereas misfeasance requires a greater degree of culpability on the part of the person concerned, often when the person has intentionally committed an act that would be to the detriment of another and often where there has been an abuse of that person’s power or position of responsibility.

What is a public official?

UK law defines a public official as an individual who is in a position of authority. The individual will hold a judicial, legislative or administrative position, whether this is appointed or elected.

Examples of public officials in the UK include:

  1. Members of the police force
  2. Members of the armed forces
  3. Government ministers
  4. Local government officials
  5. Civil servants
  6. Prison officers
  7. Security agencies including immigration and border control

Public officials are also known as public officers. Each case of alleged misfeasance must be assessed individually where public officials are involved. The nature of the officer’s role, their duties and the level of trust  – directly or indirectly – placed upon them by the public will all be considered.

What is the difference between misfeasance or malfeasance in public office?

While misfeasance in public office involves a public officer knowingly acting in an unlawful manner, malfeasance is an unlawful, intentional act of misconduct. In law, malfeasance is regarded as more severe than misfeasance and nonfeasance, which is a failure to act when there is a duty to do so.

Misfeasance and the law

Those in a position of authority are obliged to use their powers for public good. If these powers are abused by the public official to the detriment of a third party, a case of misfeasance in public office may arise.

Misfeasance in the medical profession may arise if a doctor prescribed the wrong medication to a patient, or alternatively prescribed the wrong dosage of medication, which then caused harm to the patient or left a lasting impact on their health. The doctor has not deliberately set out to harm the patient, but their actions may have resulted in such.

Where there is more deliberate intent, there can naturally be an overlap with these types of offences, whereby sometimes they may amount to specific offence, such as an assault or administering a noxious substance for example.

What factors are needed for a case of misfeasance to be proven?

For a case of misfeasance to be proven and prosecuted, two factors must be present:

  1. The misconduct was carried out by a public officer
  2. The misconduct resulted in personal injury, financial loss or damage to your reputation

If these factors are determined, the act of misconduct will be investigated to determine:

What the public official did

  1. Why they acted in such a way

For the case to be successful and for the offence of misfeasance in public office to be proven, the prosecution in the case must demonstrate that the public official:

  1. Intended to cause the damage, loss or injury
  2. Had no concern for the third party in respect of the  damage, loss or injury

It must be proven that the public officer deliberately acted in contravention of their position of authority.

Misfeasance in public office is an indictable offence which can only be heard in the crown court.

What is the sentence for misfeasance in public office under UK law?

If found guilty of misfeasance in public office, the maximum penalty is life imprisonment, albeit the court has a wide range of discretion and much will depend on the harm caused and the position and level of responsibility exercised by the official in question.

What to do if you are accused of misfeasance in public office

If you have been accused of committing misfeasance in public office, you should seek expert legal advice as soon as you are able to do so. Expert representation is essential.

At  Lawtons our specialist solicitors are experienced in defending the most complex cases. These cases are often highly sensitive and an official who is under investigation will be at risk of losing their liberty and employment, with significant damage to their reputation.

Having a legal team that can support you is vital. We will work with you to establish the facts of the case with the aim of achieving the best outcome for you, whilst minimising the potential impact on your reputation.  

Call us on 0333 577 0522 to discuss the individual circumstances of your case.

About the author

Nick Titchener, director and solicitor advocate of Lawtons, is a dedicated criminal solicitor  with considerable experience in the most serious legal cases including sexual offences, violence and assault. Nick’s measured and methodical approach means he thrives on even the most complex cases.

Nick also part oversees the overall management of Lawtons Solicitors, a specialist law firm with criminal law defence solicitors serving London, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Essex.

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