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Malfeasance in office is any unlawful conduct that is often grounds for a just cause removal of an elected official by statute or recall election, or even additionally a crime.[1][citation needed] Malfeasance in office contrasts with "misfeasance in office", which is the commission of a lawful act, done in an official capacity, that improperly causes harm; and "nonfeasance in office", which is the failure to perform an official duty.

An exact definition of malfeasance in office is difficult: many highly regarded secondary sources (such as books and commentaries) compete over its established elements based on reported cases. This confusion has arisen from the courts where no single consensus definition has arisen from the relatively few reported appeal-level cases involving malfeasance in office.

England and Wales

Under English law, misconduct in public office is a criminal offence at common law that dates back to the 13th century.[2][3]

The offence carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. It is confined to those who are public office holders, and is committed when the office holder acts (or neglects to act) in a way that constitutes a breach of the duties of that office. Case law has established a broad definition of "public office holder" for this purpose that does not depend on the person holding a formal "office" as such, nor on being paid out of the public purse, though a government employee is more likely to be found to fall into the definition.[2]

The Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on this offence[2] say that the elements of the offence are when:

  1. a public officer acting as such
  2. wilfully neglects to perform their duty and/or wilfully misconducts themself
  3. to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public's trust in the office holder[4]
  4. without reasonable excuse or justification.

The similarly-named misfeasance in public office is a tort. In the House of Lords judgement on the BCCI case, it was held that this had three essential elements:[5]

  1. The defendant must be a public officer;
  2. The defendant must have been exercising his power as a public officer;
  3. The defendant is either exercising targeted malice or exceeding his powers.

United States

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals summarized a number of the definitions of malfeasance in office applied by various appellate courts in the United States.

Malfeasance has been defined by appellate courts in other jurisdictions as a wrongful act which the actor has no legal right to do; as any wrongful conduct which affects, interrupts or interferes with the performance of official duty; as an act for which there is no authority or warrant of law; as an act which a person ought not to do; as an act which is wholly wrongful and unlawful; as that which an officer has no authority to do and is positively wrong or unlawful; and as the unjust performance of some act which the party performing it has no right, or has contracted not, to do.

— Daugherty v. Ellis, 142 W. Va. 340, 357-8, 97 S.E.2d 33, 42-3 (W. Va. 1956) (internal citations omitted).

The court then went on to use yet another definition, "malfeasance is the doing of an act which an officer had no legal right to do at all and that when an officer, through ignorance, inattention, or malice, does that which they have no legal right to do at all, or acts without any authority whatsoever, or exceeds, ignores, or abuses their powers, they are guilty of malfeasance."

Nevertheless, a few "elements" can be distilled from those cases. First, malfeasance in office requires an affirmative act or omission. Second, the act must have been done in an official capacity—under the color of office. Finally, that that act somehow interferes with the performance of official duties—though some debate remains about "whose official" duties.

In addition, jurisdictions differ greatly over whether intent or knowledge is necessary. As noted above, many courts will find malfeasance in office where there is "ignorance, inattention, or malice", which implies no intent or knowledge is required.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ "2011 Louisiana Laws :: Revised Statutes :: TITLE 14 — Criminal law :: RS 14:134 — Malfeasance in office". Justia Law. Retrieved 2020-05-25.
  2. ^ a b c "Misconduct in Public Office" (legal guidance). Crown Prosecution Service. Retrieved 6 November 2022.
  3. ^ "Nick Clegg says journalists tried for paying public officials should have clearer public interest defence in law". Press Gazette. 30 March 2015. Retrieved 31 March 2015.
  4. ^ In the decision not to prosecute Archived 2016-03-03 at the Wayback Machine Damian Green, the Director of Public Prosecutions, formulated this as "the breach must have been such a serious departure from acceptable standards as to constitute a criminal offence; and to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public's trust in the public official"; citing the Court of Appeal in the case of Attorney General's Reference No. 3 of 2003 [2004] EWCA Crim 868.
  5. ^ House of Lords judgements Archived 2006-03-13 at the Wayback Machine on Three Rivers District Council and Others v The Governor and Company of The Bank of England