Common Informers Act 1951

Common Informers Act 1951
Common Informers Act 1951

United Kingdom Parliament
Long title An Act to abolish the common informer procedure.
Statute book chapter 14 & 15 Geo. 6, c. 39
Introduced by Sir Lionel Heald, Private Member's Bill[1]
Territorial extent England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland
Royal Assent 22 June 1951
Commencement 1 September 1951[2]
Status: Current legislation
Official text of the statute as amended and in force today within the United Kingdom, from the UK Statute Law Database

The Common Informers Act 1951 (14 & 15 Geo. 6, c. 39) is an Act of the United Kingdom Parliament that abolishes the principle of, and procedures concerning a common informer.



A common informer was a person who provided evidence on criminal trials or prosecuted for breaches of Irish penal laws solely for the purpose of being rewarded with the penalty recovered, or a share of it.[3] In medieval England, there was no police force and the state bureaucracy was insufficiently well developed to be able to ensure obedience to new laws. The practice of allowing the public to sue for penalties was successful and soon became widespread.[1]

An action by a common informer was termed a "popular" or qui tam action, because it was brought by a person qui tam pro domino rege quam pro se ipso sequitur (Latin "who sues for the lord king as well as for himself"). A legal action by an informer had to be brought within a year of the offence, unless a specific time was prescribed by the statute.[3] The informer had to prove his case strictly and was given no assistance by the court being denied discovery.[4]

Following the Revolution of 1688 in England, the Popery Act 1698 introduced a reward of £100 for the apprehension of any Roman Catholic priest. The result was that Catholics were placed at the mercy of common informers who harassed them for the sake of gain, even when the government would have left them in peace.[5]

Jonathan Swift described common informers as "a detestable race of people" while Edward Coke called them "viperous vermin".[1]

In 1931, Millie Orpen, a solicitor's clerk, brought an action as a common informer against a cinema chain for opening on a succession of Sundays, contrary to the Sunday Observance Act 1780, s.1. Orpen claimed £25,000 (£1.64 million at 2003 prices[6]) against the cinema company and individual members of its board of directors. The claim was based on a forfeit of £200 per performance, per defendant. The judge, Mr Justice Rowlatt, expressed some distaste for the proceedings. He found against the cinema chain, awarding Orpen £5,000 (£328,000 at 2003 prices[6]) with costs but found for the individual directors on the grounds that there was no evidence that they were guilty on any particular Sunday. Costs were awarded to the directors against Orpen. The judge granted a stay of execution pending an appeal by the company.[4] Later in the year, Orpen brought a claim against another chain but this time was thwarted by a change in the law legalising Sunday opening for cinemas before her case could be decided.[7]

The Act

Many statutes, such as the Simony Act 1588 and the White Herring Fisheries Act 1771, provide for penalties for offenders in breach of the provisions. Before the Common Informers Act 1951, there were further statutory provisions for the levied penalties to be paid over to an informer. For example section 15 of the Commissioners Clauses Act 1847,[8] as of 2008 still in force, states:

Every person who shall act as a commissioner, being incapacitated or not duly qualified to act, or before he has made or subscribed such declaration as aforesaid, or after having become disqualified, shall for every such offence be liable to a penalty of fifty pounds; and such penalty may be recovered by any person, with full costs of suit, in any of the superior courts; and in every such action the person sued shall prove that at the time of so acting he was qualified, and had made and subscribed the declaration aforesaid, or he shall pay the said penalty and costs without any other evidence being required from the plaintiff than that such person had acted as a commissioner in the execution of this or the special Act; nevertheless all acts as a commissioner of any person incapacitated, or not duly qualified, or not having made or subscribed the declaration aforesaid, done previously to the recovery of the penalty, shall be as valid as if such person had been duly qualified.

The Act removed this right to recover a penalty from 48 Acts, including:[1]

Staute Repealed
Sale of Wares after Close of Fair Act 1331 Repealed
Apprentices Act 1526 Repealed
Maintenance and Embracery Act 1540 Repealed[9]
Sale of Horses Act 1555 Repealed
Simony Act 1588 In force
Act of Uniformity 1662 Repealed
Bank of England Act 1694 In force
Gold and Silver Thread Act 1741 1 January 1975[10]
Universities (Wine Licenses) Act 1743 In force
Disorderly Houses Act 1751 Repealed
White Herring Fisheries Act 1771 In force
Plate Assay (Sheffield and Birmingham) Act 1772 Repealed
Sunday Observance Act 1780 In force
Partridges Act 1799 Repealed
Sale of Offices Act 1809 In force
Places of Religious Worship Act 1812 Repealed
North American Fisheries Act 1819 Repealed
Ecclesiastical Leases Act 1836 In force
Metropolitan Police Courts Act 1839 Repealed
Commissioners Clauses Act 1847 In force
Summary Jurisdiction Act 1848 Repealed
Hosiery Manufacture (Wages) Act 1874 Repealed
Seal Fishery Act 1875 Repealed
Justices Clerks Act 1877 Repealed
Minicipal Corporations Act 1882 Repealed
Representation of the People Act 1949 Repealed

Most of these have themselves been repealed.[11] The Crown was also prohibited from bringing actions as a common informer (s.1(5)). The former penalties were not all abolished but were commuted to £100, later revised to level 3 of the standard scale[12] though the purpose of this provision was obscure as it was thought that not even the Crown could now bring such an action.[1]

Subsequent developments

Qui tam claims saw a revival in the U.S. from 1986 in actions by "whistleblowers". In 2007 a consultative document from the Home Office raised the question of whether members of the public who informed on companies or individuals defrauding the government should be entitled to a reward.[13][14]


  1. ^ a b c d e Edwards (1951) p. 462
  2. ^ S. 3(3)
  3. ^ a b [Anon.] (1911) "Informer", Encyclopaedia Britannica
  4. ^ a b Orpen v. Haymarket Capital Ltd & Others, The Times, July 18, 1931, p.3, col E
  5. ^ Burton, E. et al. (1913) "Penal laws, Catholic Encyclopedia
  6. ^ a b O‘Donoghue, J. et al. (2004). "Consumer Price Inflation since 1750". Economic Trends 604: 38–46, March. 
  7. ^ Orpen v. New Empire Ltd and Others, The Times, October 20, 1931, p.4, col C
  8. ^ 10 & 11 Vict. c. 16
  9. ^ Criminal Law Act 1967, s.13(2) Sch.4 Pt.1
  10. ^ Hallmarking Act 1973, s.23/ Sch.7
  11. ^ Schedule - Acts Providing for Common Informer Actions, as amended
  12. ^ Criminal Justice Act 1982, ss. 38, 46
  13. ^ Walker (2007)
  14. ^ Home Office (2007)


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company. 

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