When can one person charge another for looking after goods? On bailment and the right to reimbursement (and cows)

In Tongue v (1) RSPCA (2) Heasalgrave (Trustee in bankruptcy of the Applicant) [2017] EWHC 2508 (Ch), the Court considered the question of when a relationship of bailment arises, and whether (and how) it gives rise to a right to reimbursement for looking after the bailed goods – in Tongue’s case, the goods were cattle.

Tongue is a rather sad case, involving Mr Tongue, his father, and brother; wherein the RSPCA had intervened to deal with cattle owned by Mr Tongue; they were first looked after by the RPCA, then moved from his farm to a holding owned by Trading Standards. The cows had been left in poor conditions. Criminal charges followed, and then convictions; and later a sentence of imprisonment for breaches of the disqualification element of the sentences (in the case of Mr Tongue’s father, that sentence was suspended). In 2013, Mr Tongue was adjudged bankrupt. The RSPCA brought proceedings claiming that, as bailee of the animals, it was entitled to recover expenses incurred in looking after the animals.

Newey LJ in the High Court provides a very helpful summary of the law of bailment at para 71 & seq. Mr Tongue had agreed to let the RSPCA “enter land at Emmadale to care for (f[ood]/w[ater]/vet) [the cattle]” – but that did not give rise to a bailment. Primarily – see para 74 of the judgment – the agreement was not apt to confer possession. Secondly – and this is rather fact-specific:

. . . Assuming that [the seizure of the cattle] was valid, the police must at that point have become bailees of the cattle (compare Sutcliffe v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire) and, having had them placed in its care, the RSPCA would in turn seem to have become a bailee for the police and held the cattle to their order. The consent that Mr Tongue gave later that day will have given the RSPCA due authority to go onto Emmadale Farm (though it was in fact already there), but it is hard to see that it can otherwise have changed much. The RSPCA will surely have continued to hold the cattle as a bailee for, and to the order of, the police. Mr Tongue had no power to release the RSPCA from its obligations to the police.

So the short point, in relation to bailment, is this: one does not become a bailee of goods simply by being permitted to enter onto an individual’s land and deal with those goods; similarly, a bailee generally cannot dispute a bailor’s title to goods.