Sorrell v Smith

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
JudgeLord Buckmaster,Lord Sumner,Lord Dunedin,The Lord Chancellor,.
Judgment Date15 May 1925
Judgment citation (vLex)[1925] UKHL J0515-3
Date15 May 1925
CourtHouse of Lords
Smith and Others.

[1925] UKHL J0515-3

Lord Chancellor.

Lord Dunedin.

Lord Atkinson.

Lord Sumner.

Lord Buckmaster.

House of Lords

After hearing Counsel, as well on Tuesday the 10th, as Thursday the 12th, Friday the 13th, Monday the 16th, and Tuesday the 17th, days of February last, upon the Petition and Appeal of William James Sorrell, residing at 77, Bridport Place, Hoxton, in the County of London, praying, That the matter of the Order set forth in the Schedule thereto, namely, an Order of His Majesty's Court of Appeal, of the 13th of March 1924, might be reviewed before His Majesty the King in His Court of Parliament, and that the said Order might be reversed, varied, or altered, or that the Petitioner might have such other relief in the premises as to His Majesty the King in His Court of Parliament might seem meet; as also upon the printed Case of Valentine Smith, Peter Neil McFarlane, Robert Henry Sherwood, Charles William Cole, William Alfred Mosely, Herbert Henry Canty, George Frederick Bonner, Albert Edward Lilly, Alfred William Knapp, John Avis, Herbert Arthur Le Good, Thomas Longworth, Frederick Widdowson Doidge, Charles Hardaker, Harry Ebden, Joseph Henry Parham and Cyril Hardwicke Johnson, lodged in answer to the said Appeal; and due consideration had this day of what was offered on either side in this Cause:

It is Ordered and Adjudged, by the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in the Court of Parliament of His Majesty the King assembled, That the said Order of His Majesty's Court of Appeal, of the 13th day of March 1924, complained of in the said Appeal, be, and the same is hereby, Affirmed, and that the said Petition and Appeal be, and the same is hereby, dismissed this House: And it is further Ordered, That the Appellant do pay, or cause to be paid, to the said Respondents the Costs incurred by them in respect of the said Appeal, the amount thereof to be certified by the Clerk of the Parliaments.


Lord Buckmaster (read by Lord Dunedin).

My Lords,


The appellants rest their contention upon the decision of this House in the case of Quinn v. Leathem (1901), A.C. 465. They assert this authority to have determined that concerted action to interfere by threats, coercion or intimidation with a man's liberty to trade constitutes an actionable wrong and that this doctrine cannot be qualified by consideration of the purpose of the acts done.


It is obvious that the phrase "threats, coercion or intimidation" must in any circumstances be explained before this claim can be adequately examined. So far as it relates to acts unlawful in themselves, the proposition is self evident; it is only when the meaning includes action that would or might be lawful that the question becomes intricate. The facts of the present case afford an excellent illustration of this distinction.


For the defendants to withhold supply of their newspapers from Watson or Messrs. W. H. Smith is in itself a perfectly lawful act, but the appellants say that when the threat of this exclusion is used to prevent Watson or W. H. Smith supplying newspapers to the plaintiff, it becomes, if done in combination, an illegal act and Quinn v. Leathem has so decided. Quinn v. Leathem is a case of great importance and its authority cannot be impeached, but. as Lord Halsbury said at p. 506, "every judgment must be used as applicable to the particular facts proved or assumed to be proved, since the generality of expressions which might be found there are not intended to be expositions of the whole law but governed and qualified by the particular facts of the case in which the expressions are to be found."


Now Quinn v. Leathem established the following propositions:(1) That the case of Lumley v. Gye was correctly decided; (2) that the case of Allen v. Flood depended upon the fact that the defendant there acted alone and neither uttered nor carried into effect any threat at all; and (3) that acts done in pursuance of a conspiracy having for its real purpose the injury of a man in his trade or calling is an actionable wrong. The last of these three propositions is the most important for the present purpose; it did undoubtedly decide that—did it decide more?


For the purpose of examining that question it is essential to see how the case came before the House.


The jury had held that the defendants had "wrongfully and maliciously" induced customers or servants of the plaintiff to cease dealing with him, and this finding followed a careful summing up, in which it was pointed out that by "wrongfully" was meant not only with intent to injure the plaintiff but also not in furtherance of any trade dispute. Lord Halsbury says that he regarded the charge to the jury as "absolutely accurate." See p. 508. And though he uses that phrase in connection with an argument relating to the questions actually put, yet with the whole summing up before him I cannot but think his words were intended to have a wider significance.


Lord Shand, at p. 512, refers to this particular passage with obvious approval, and Lord Brampton quotes it in detail without any suggestion that it is wrong, and yet, if the appellant's argument be sound it was useless or misleading. To my mind it was the essence of the case, and in spite of some general observations of wider import, it was the judgment upon the verdict given with that meaning attached that this House decided to support. In other words, the expanded finding of the jury was this. The acts done have for their purpose the plaintiff's injury as distinguished from acts done for advancing the defendants' own interests and were, therefore, wrongful and malicious.


At p. 506 this view is summarised by Lord Halsbury in these words—that all the acts done were done "with malice in order to injure the plaintiff," and upon this statement his judgment rests. Lord Macnaghten, at p. 510, says the question is "Does a conspiracy to injure give rise to civil liability?" and though this might include an injury done in furtherance of legal and ulterior purposes, the case he quotes in support of the view that it does ( Gregory v. The Duke of Brunswick, 6 M. & G., 205) is a case of designed and deliberate injury to an individual. Lord Shand's judgment proceeds throughout upon this view, and is summed up at p. 515 in these words:

"These acts" (i.e., the defendant's) "were wrongful and malicious in the sense found by the jury, that is to say they acted by conspiracy not for any purpose of advancing their own interests but for the sole purpose of injuring the plaintiff in his trade."


I regard Lord Brampton as holding the same view, see p. 530. Lord Lindley, at p. 536, does indeed say that the defendants acted as they did "in furtherance of what they considered the interests of union men may probably be fairly assumed in their favour, but that is all that can be said for them. No one can, I think, say the verdict was not amply warranted by the evidence."


This view is in its expression hypothetical and could not be regarded as an assumption of fact except in disregard of the jury's verdict, which was expressly approved. As an exposition of the law which must be followed, Quinn v. Leathem decided no more than I have stated. It still remains to see whether, apart from this authority, the plaintiffs are entitled to succeed. For this purpose it is essential to state exactly what I regard them as having done. They have threatened to withhold supplies of their papers from Watson and any firm who supplies Watson, if Watson continues to supply Sorrell, the reason being that Sorrell, at the invitation of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, Booksellers and Stationers, has withdrawn his custom from Ritchie to Watson because Ritchie has supplied and intends to continue supplying certain newsvendors whom the Federation believed to be in excess of the fair trade requirements of a particular area. The Federation think the best interests of the retail trade are secured by limiting in each area the number of retail dealers. The defendants regard their interests as best promoted by unrestricted competition. Of the merits of this controversy we are not called upon to judge. It is sufficient to say that it is a perfectly open trade quarrel and does not appear to be envenomed on one side or the other by spite or malice. In other words, the defendants, in order, as they believe, to advance their sales, combine in refusing to supply Watson who, they think, is assisting in a course detrimental to their interests, and have informed Watson that they will take this step unless he ceases to supply papers to the plaintiff.


So stated I cannot see how this case differs in principle from the Mogul S.S. case or the Glasgow Fleshers case, 25 S.C. L.R., 645, a case which was certainly not disapproved in Quinn v. Leathem. Just as in the Mogul case the defendants were held entitled so to arrange their freights and agencies as to shut out competing traders, and in the Glasgow Flashers case the attempt was made to shut out the co-operative societies from the only market where United States and Canadian cattle could be sold, so here the defendants seek to arrange their distribution so as to prevent a limitation on the channels through which their wares circulate to the public.


I think, therefore, that as the law stands the defendants have done no wrong.


Having regard to the careful investigation of the authorities made by the noble Lords who have preceded me. I will not subject them to re-examination, but as the appellant has relied on the statement of Lord Loreburn in Conway v. Wade, 1909 A.C. p. 506, at p. 510, that if an inducement to act in a certain way be "accompanied by violence or threats" there is a good ground of action, I think it right to say that I regard that statement as meaning "threats" either of violence or some other unlawful action. Threats to do or...

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