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If a party applying for a court order alleges that another party has 'wrongly detained' goods, how can/should this be interpreted. It was written in the context of:

Given that defendant has wrongly detained the goods, the court should order...

My initial reading is that wrongly detained implies that the goods are in the possession of the defendant unlawfully.

It's worth noting, that in this circumstance, the defendant gained possession of the goods lawfully, there is no prior or contemporaneous agreement with respect to returning goods.

Is it correct to interpret 'wrongly detained' as meaning held unlawfully? Are there any other interpretations likely possible?

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Is it correct to interpret 'wrongly detained' as meaning held unlawfully? Are there any other interpretations likely possible?

Retaining possession doesn't have to be wrongful prior to the point at which a person with a superior right to possession demands that possession be transferred to them.

For example, suppose that I own a custom desk, and I direct my employee and agent to retrieve the desk for me, which has been paid for in full and is being held at a furniture store awaiting my pickup. The furniture store's possession of the desk isn't wrongful until my employee goes to the furniture store and asked to be given the desk and the furniture store can confirm that my employee is authorized to pick it up, but refuses to turn over the desk to my employee anyway. And, this happens while I'm abroad on an ethnography research mission deep in the Amazon jungle for the next year, and I am unavailable.

My employee could sue the furniture store which upon refusing my employee's demand had wrongfully detained my custom desk to gain possession of it. This is because my employee has a superior right to possess the custom desk to the furniture store, even though I own the desk.

Similarly, if I buy a car with a car loan and then default on my loan in a way that authorizes its repossession upon the demand of the lender under the loan agreement and the applicable chattel mortgage law, and I refuse to allow it to be turned over to the repo man for the lender, either the lender or the repo man would have superior right to possession of the car to me, and I would be wrongfully detaining the car. This is true even though I came into possession of the car rightfully and was not wrongfully detaining it until the lender had the right to repossess it and demanded that I turn it over. Even then, my wrongful detention might be merely a breach of contract, rather than a crime.

So, yes it is unlawful possession in the technical sense, but wrongful possession includes a much broader range of conduct than, for example, criminal theft.

It's worth noting, that in this circumstance, the defendant gained possession of the goods lawfully, there is no prior or contemporaneous agreement with respect to returning goods.

In this situation, absent other extenuating circumstances (like a possessory repairman's lien or storage costs lien, or possession of something by a spouse while a divorce is pending, or a court order directing someone to hold property pending a determination of ownership by a court), anyone with a greater right to possession than the person who is currently in possession of it can simply demand that possession be turned over immediately, and their possession then becomes wrongful detention if they don't promptly comply.

For example, if you loan you backhoe to your neighbor with no other agreement, your neighbor has to return it to you or your agent upon demand.

Someone who is in possession of property of another lawfully entrusted to them, who has no other relationship to the owner of the property, is a "bailee" of the property for the owner or other person with a superior right to possession of it who delivered the property to the bailee, who is the "bailor" of the property.

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  • Would you say it's correct to say that in order to consider goods 'detained', that it requires some legal obligation to handover the goods and that they have not been handed over for some (maybe legal) reason?
    – gunwin
    Feb 2, 2023 at 20:49
  • @gunwin "it requires some legal obligation to handover the goods" yes. which usually includes a demand unless there is a prearrangement to return something at a particular time certain reached in advance, "and that they have not been handed" yes. Sometimes you would break it into elements differently, with (1) superior right to possession, and (2) presently performable obligation to turn over possession. I don't know how the English case law has articulated those elements which are equivalent to each other.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 2, 2023 at 21:30
  • @gunwin Also, sometimes the law makes a distinction between "forcible detainer" and "wrongful detainer". The latter is what I have described in this answer. "Forcible detainer" would involve force or the threat of force to hold onto it. Finally, possession can be "constructive". If the stuff is in a storage locker, for example, possession may functionally mean knowledge of the unit where it is stored and access to the key and access codes to get into the storage unit. For something big, like industrial equipment, possession may mean having the key to a padlock currently disabling it.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 2, 2023 at 21:33

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