When two or more persons without lawful justification combine for the purpose of willfully causing damage to the plaintiff, and actual damage results therefrom, they commit the tort of conspiracy. It may consist in the agreement of two or more to do an unlawful act or to do a lawful act by unlawful means.
Conspiracy is both a tort and a crime; it is a statutory offence. However, under criminal law merely an agreement between the parties to do an illegal act or a legal act by illegal means is actionable; it is not necessary that the conspirators must have acted in pursuance of their agreement. The tort of conspiracy is not committed by a mere agreement between the parties, the tort is completed only when actual damage results to the plaintiff by some overt act or acts of the defendants. The mere act of conspiracy is not subject of civil action.
A conspiracy to injure differs widely from an invasion of civil rights by a single individual because a number of things not in themselves unlawful if done separately may with conspiracy become dangerous and alarming.
Conspiracy to Injure
The tort of conspiracy necessarily involves advertence to and affirmation of the object of the combination being infliction of damage or destruction on the plaintiff. When the object of persons combining is to protect or further their own legitimate interest rather than causing damage to the plaintiff that is a justification for their combination and they will not be liable even though their concerted act causes damage to the plaintiff; however, for that the means adopted by them should not be unlawful (violence, fraud, etc.) and they do not infringe rights of other people.
In Sorrel v Smith (1925) AC 700, the plaintiff, a retail newsagent, who was accustomed to take his newspapers from R withdraw his custom from R and started taking the newspapers from W. The defendants, members of a committee of circulation managers of London daily papers, threatened the cutting of the supply of newspaper to W if W continued to supply newspapers to the plaintiff. Since the defendants had acted to promote their business interests they were held not liable.
But a combination, not in pursuit of trade interests, but in pursuit merely of malicious purpose to injure another would be clearly unlawful, and if an injury has resulted, an action lies, e.g. a combination without justification or excuse to injure a man in his trade by inducing his customers or servants to break their contracts with him, or not to deal with him or continue in his employment [Quinn v Leathern 090With AC 495]. However, malice is not an essential requirement of the tort of conspiracy.
Where the plaintiff appeared in character upon the stage, and thereupon the defendants, with other persons, hissed and hooted at the plaintiff, so as to compel him to desist from the performance and thereby caused the plaintiff to lose his engagement, it was held that a good cause of action was shown [Gregory v Duke of Brunswick – “The Hissing case” (1844) 6 M&G 205].
In Huntley v Thornton (1957)1 All ER 234, the plaintiff, a member of a union, refused to comply with the union’s call for strike. The defendants, the secretary and some members of the union, wanted his expulsion from the union but the executive council of the union decided not to do that. The defendants acting out of grudge against the plaintiff made efforts to see that the plaintiff remained out of work. The defendants were liable as their acts were not in furtherance of any union interest but were actuated by malice and grudge.
Unlawful Means in Conspiracy
Where the aim is good but the means employed are unlawful, for example, illegal labour strike for a good cause, the result depends upon facts. Unless the predominant purpose is to injure the plaintiff, there is no liability for the tort of conspiracy although the means employed by the combination are unlawful (See [English] Trade Disputes Act, 1905 and the [Indian] Industrial Disputes Act).
In Rohtas Industries Ltd v Rohtas Industries Staff Union (1976)2 SCC 82, it was held that if the object of a strike by workmen belonging to a Union is to bring the employer to terms with the employees or to bully the rival Trade Union into submission, there cannot be an actionable combination in tort although the strike is illegal under the Industrial law. Held that the tort of conspiracy was not made out for the object of the combiners was not to harm the management but to benefit themselves.
The tort of conspiracy to injure by unlawful means is not complete without pecuniary loss. Damages for injury to reputation or feelings can only be recovered in action for defamation and not in an action for conspiracy to injure by unlawful means [Lonrho Plc. v Fayed (1994) All ER 188 (CA).]
Tort of Conspiracy in India
How far the English tort of conspiracy can be transplanted in the Indian law is not yet settled. Krishna lyer J. observed : “Whatever the merits of the norms, violation of which constituted ‘conspiracy’ in English law, it is a problem for creative Indian jurisprudence to consider, detached from anglophonic inclination, how far a mere combination of men working for furthering certain objectives can be prohibited as a tort, according to the Indian value system.” The court, however, in Rohtas Industries Ltd. case proceeded to apply the English law.