Define: Writ Of Detinue

Writ Of Detinue
Writ Of Detinue
Quick Summary of Writ Of Detinue

A writ of detinue is a legal remedy used to reclaim personal property that has been unlawfully seized by someone else. Unlike seeking damages for conversion, this common-law action enables the plaintiff to sue for the specific return of their belongings. For instance, if your car is taken without permission and the person refuses to return it, you can initiate a writ of detinue to retrieve your car rather than just seeking compensation for its value. Detinue can also be employed when the defendant has no ownership claim and has not committed trespass. For example, if you lend a book to a friend who refuses to give it back, you can file a writ of detinue to recover the book. In summary, a writ of detinue is a legal recourse that empowers individuals to reclaim their personal property when it has been wrongfully taken by another person.

What is the dictionary definition of Writ Of Detinue?
Dictionary Definition of Writ Of Detinue

A writ of detinue is a legal document that is utilised to reclaim personal property that has been unlawfully taken by another person. It is a lawsuit that enables an individual with the rightful possession of certain goods to sue someone who currently possesses those goods but refuses to give them back. The purpose of this writ is to specifically obtain the return of the property, rather than just seeking damages for its loss. This type of lawsuit is employed when the defendant does not assert ownership of the property and has not committed trespass. In the past, there were also specific variations of detinue writs, such as detinue of goods in frankmarriage, which allowed a divorced wife to retrieve goods given to her during the marriage, and detinue sur bailment, which was used to recover property that was acquired through bailment but not returned.

Full Definition Of Writ Of Detinue

A writ of detinue is an ancient common law remedy used to recover personal property that is wrongfully detained by another party. It is a specific type of legal action distinct from other remedies like conversion or trespass. The writ of detinue is concerned primarily with the recovery of a specific item of property and, in some cases, damages for its detention. This overview explores the historical context, legal principles, procedural aspects, and contemporary relevance of the writ of detinue in British law.

Historical Context

The writ of detinue has its origins in mediaeval England, where it served as one of the primary remedies for the wrongful detention of chattels (personal property). It is rooted in the common law system, which evolved over centuries through judicial decisions and customary practices. Initially, detinue was a remedy available to landlords and tenants for recovering goods such as agricultural tools, livestock, or household items.

In its early form, the writ of detinue was a type of “real action,” meaning it was focused on the recovery of a specific item of property rather than merely compensatory damages. This characteristic distinguished it from other common law remedies such as trover (an action for the recovery of damages for wrongful conversion of property) and replevin (an action to recover possession of goods wrongfully taken).

Legal Principles

The essential elements of a writ of detinue are as follows:

  1. Plaintiff’s Ownership or Right to Possession: The plaintiff must demonstrate that they have legal ownership or a superior right to possess the property in question. This element establishes the plaintiff’s standing to bring the action.
  2. Defendant’s Possession: The defendant must have actual possession or control of the property at the time the action is commenced. Mere past possession by the defendant is insufficient; the plaintiff must show that the defendant currently detains the property.
  3. Wrongful Detention: The plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s detention of the property is wrongful. This generally means that the defendant has no legal right to retain the property against the plaintiff’s claim.
  4. Demand and Refusal: Traditionally, the plaintiff is required to make a formal demand for the return of the property, and the defendant must refuse to return it. This element underscores the wrongful nature of the defendant’s detention.
  5. Specific Property: The writ of detinue is concerned with the recovery of specific, identifiable items of property. It is not a remedy for fungible goods or money unless those items can be specifically identified (e.g., a particular batch of goods).

Procedural Aspects

The procedural steps for bringing a writ of detinue action historically involved several stages:

  1. Issuance of the Writ: The plaintiff would commence the action by obtaining a writ from the court. This writ would command the defendant to appear in court and answer the plaintiff’s claim.
  2. Pleading: The parties would exchange pleadings, with the plaintiff setting out the facts supporting their claim and the defendant responding with any defences. Common defences in detinue included claims of lawful possession, denial of the plaintiff’s ownership, or assertion of a lien or other right to retain the property.
  3. Trial: The case would proceed to trial, where the plaintiff bore the burden of proving their ownership, the defendant’s possession, the wrongful detention, and the demand and refusal. The trial would typically involve the presentation of evidence, including testimony and documentary proof.
  4. Judgement: If the plaintiff succeeded, the court would issue a judgement ordering the return of the specific property. In some cases, the court might also award damages for the period of wrongful detention or for any harm caused to the property while it was in the defendant’s possession.
  5. Enforcement: The judgement for the return of the property could be enforced through various means, including the issuance of a writ of delivery. If the property could not be recovered, the court might award the plaintiff monetary compensation equivalent to the value of the property.

Contemporary Relevance

In modern legal practice, the writ of detinue has largely been subsumed by statutory remedies and procedural reforms. In England and Wales, the action of detinue was abolished by the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977, which consolidated various common law remedies for wrongful interference with goods into a single statutory framework.

Under the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977, claims that would have historically been brought as writs of detinue are now addressed under broader categories of wrongful interference, including conversion and wrongful detention. The Act allows for the recovery of specific goods and provides a more streamlined and accessible process for claimants seeking the return of their property.

Despite its abolition in England and Wales, the principles underlying the writ of detinue continue to influence modern legal remedies for the wrongful detention of property. For example, in some common law jurisdictions outside the United Kingdom, detinue remains a viable cause of action, particularly in countries that have retained traditional common law remedies.

Case Law and Judicial Interpretation

Although the writ of detinue is no longer a standalone remedy in England and Wales, historical case law provides valuable insights into its application and the evolution of legal principles regarding the recovery of property. Key cases illustrate the complexities and nuances involved in detinue actions:

  • Wilbraham v Snow (1670): This case established that a defendant’s mere refusal to return property after a demand does not constitute conversion but may form the basis for an action in detinue. The court emphasised the importance of demand and refusal in establishing wrongful detention.
  • General and Finance Facilities Ltd. v. Cooks Cars (Romford) Ltd. (1963): This modern case highlighted the distinction between detinue and conversion. The court noted that detinue involves the wrongful detention of property, whereas conversion involves an act inconsistent with the owner’s rights, such as selling or destroying the property.
  • Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977: Although not a case, this statute significantly reformed the legal landscape for claims involving wrongful interference with goods. It consolidated detinue, conversion, and other related actions into a unified statutory framework, simplifying the process for claimants.

Comparative Analysis

The abolition of the writ of detinue in England and Wales contrasts with its continued existence in some other common law jurisdictions. For instance, in parts of Australia and Canada, detinue remains a recognised cause of action. This divergence reflects differences in legal evolution and statutory reforms across jurisdictions.

In Australia, the law of detinue is largely governed by state legislation, and the principles are similar to those historically applied in England. Australian courts continue to address detinue claims, emphasising the need for specific identification of the detained property and the wrongful nature of the detention.

In Canada, detinue is less commonly invoked, with plaintiffs often preferring conversion or other remedies. However, the action remains available for cases where the recovery of specific property is paramount.


The writ of detinue is a historically significant legal remedy that played a crucial role in the recovery of personal property wrongfully detained by another party. Its principles have influenced the development of modern legal remedies for wrongful interference with goods, even though the specific action of detinue has been abolished in England and Wales.

Under the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977, the core elements of detinue—ownership, wrongful detention, demand, and refusal—are subsumed within a broader statutory framework. This reform reflects a trend towards simplifying and consolidating legal remedies, making the process more accessible for claimants.

While the writ of detinue is no longer a standalone remedy in contemporary British law, its legacy endures in the principles and procedures governing the recovery of personal property. Understanding its historical context and evolution provides valuable insights into the development of common law remedies and the ongoing efforts to balance the rights of property owners with the need for efficient and effective legal processes.

Writ Of Detinue FAQ'S

A Writ of Detinue is a legal document that allows a plaintiff to recover personal property that is wrongfully withheld by another party.

You can file a Writ of Detinue when someone has wrongfully taken or is wrongfully withholding your personal property.

A Writ of Detinue can be used to recover any type of personal property, such as vehicles, electronics, jewelry, or furniture.

While it is not mandatory to have an attorney, it is recommended to seek legal advice to ensure that you follow the correct procedures and present a strong case.

The statute of limitations for filing a Writ of Detinue varies by jurisdiction. It is important to consult with an attorney or research the specific laws in your area.

The duration of a Writ of Detinue case can vary depending on various factors, such as court availability, complexity of the case, and the willingness of the parties to negotiate a resolution. It is best to consult with an attorney for a more accurate estimate.

If the defendant refuses to return the property after a Writ of Detinue is filed and the court rules in your favor, the court may issue a judgment ordering the defendant to return the property or pay its value.

Yes, in some cases, you may be able to seek monetary damages for any harm or losses you suffered as a result of the defendant’s wrongful withholding of your property. Consult with an attorney to determine if this is applicable to your situation.

Yes, a Writ of Detinue can be used in commercial disputes when personal property is wrongfully withheld by another party, regardless of whether it is an individual or a business entity.

No, a Writ of Detinue is specifically used for the recovery of personal property. To recover real estate or land, different legal remedies, such as an action for ejectment or quiet title, would need to be pursued.

Related Phrases
No related content found.

This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 9th June 2024.

Cite Term

To help you cite our definitions in your bibliography, here is the proper citation layout for the three major formatting styles, with all of the relevant information filled in.

  • Page URL:
  • Modern Language Association (MLA):Writ Of Detinue. DLS Solicitors. June 20 2024
  • Chicago Manual of Style (CMS):Writ Of Detinue. DLS Solicitors. (accessed: June 20 2024).
  • American Psychological Association (APA):Writ Of Detinue. Retrieved June 20 2024, from website:
Avatar of DLS Solicitors
DLS Solicitors : Family Law Solicitors

Our team of professionals are based in Alderley Edge, Cheshire. We offer clear, specialist legal advice in all matters relating to Family Law, Wills, Trusts, Probate, Lasting Power of Attorney and Court of Protection.

All author posts