Murray v Ministry of Defence – 1988

April 02, 2024
Micheal James

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Introduction to Murray v Ministry of Defence – 1988

The 1988 case of Murray v Ministry of Defence (MoD) is a landmark judgment in United Kingdom law. It significantly shaped the legal understanding of both false imprisonment and trespass to the person, particularly in the context of state security measures. This case study delves into the details of the case, its legal significance, and its lasting impact.


Margaret Murray, a resident of Belfast, Northern Ireland, found herself at the center of a legal dispute. Soldiers acting on behalf of the MoD arrived at her house to arrest her on suspicion of aiding the Irish Republican Army (IRA). While the details surrounding the alleged involvement with the IRA remain unclear, the events that transpired during her detention became the crux of the legal battle. Murray later sued the MoD for false imprisonment and trespass to the person arising from a physical search conducted by the soldiers.

 Legal Issue(s)

The Murray v MoD case presented two distinct legal issues:

  • False Imprisonment: Did the actions of the MoD constitute false imprisonment, even though no formal arrest announcement was made at the outset? Murray argued that her detainment was unlawful because the reason for arrest wasn’t explicitly stated, and she wasn’t formally informed of her rights.
  • Trespass to the Person: Did the “pat search” conducted by the soldiers constitute an unlawful touching of Murray’s body? Murray contended that the search, without her consent or a warrant, amounted to a violation of her personal space.

Relevant Law

To understand the court’s decision, it’s essential to grasp the legal principles at play:

  • False Imprisonment: In English law, false imprisonment refers to the unlawful confinement of a person without legal justification. It doesn’t necessarily require physical restraints; any act that detains a person against their will can be considered false imprisonment.
  • Trespass to the Person: Trespass to the person encompasses any unlawful touching of another person, regardless of the severity. This includes actions like touching, grabbing, or pushing.

Reasoning and Holding

Murray presented a compelling case for both false imprisonment and trespass to the person.

  • False Imprisonment: Murray argued that the soldiers’ actions, surrounding her house and preventing her from leaving, constituted false imprisonment despite the lack of a formal arrest announcement.
  • Trespass to the Person: Murray claimed the pat search, conducted without her consent, was an unlawful touching of her body.

The House of Lords, the highest court in the United Kingdom, issued a split decision.

  • False Imprisonment: The House of Lords ruled against Murray on the false imprisonment claim. They reasoned that even without a formal announcement, the circumstances – being surrounded by soldiers and effectively prevented from leaving – amounted to an arrest. The court focused on the objective reality of the situation, rather than the formality of pronouncements.
  • Trespass to the Person: However, the House of Lords ruled in favor of Murray on the trespass to the person claim. They found that the pat search, conducted without her consent or a warrant, constituted an unlawful touching. The court acknowledged the need for a balance between state security concerns and individual liberty.


The Murray v MoD decision has had a lasting impact on UK law in two key ways:

  • False Imprisonment: This case clarified that a formal announcement of arrest isn’t essential to establish false imprisonment. The focus shifted to the deprivation of liberty, regardless of the specific words used by the arresting officer.
  • Trespass to the Person: The case established that pat searches conducted by law enforcement require justification, such as a search warrant or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. It set a precedent for limitations on such searches in the absence of proper legal grounds.


The Murray v MoD case serves as a crucial precedent in balancing individual liberty with state security measures. It distinguished between the formality of pronouncements and the reality of detainment in false imprisonment claims. Additionally, it set a benchmark for limitations on pat searches without proper justification, protecting individuals from unreasonable intrusions on their person.

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