Hospital Detention is Illegal

The detention of a patient who cannot pay his medical bills is not a practice that is allowed or backed up by the law. Such a detention could render the hospital or medical personnel who is responsible liable in an action for trespass to the patient (and more particularly the tort of false imprisonment – IGBOERI (2010) LPELR-4712(CA). Put simply, this means that the patient can sue the Hospital and ask the Court for monetary compensation on the basis that he or she has been falsely imprisoned by the Hospital.

The tort of false imprisonment is the restraining or detaining of a person, if the person doing or causing the imprisonment has no right in law to imprison that other. (A tort is a civil wrong that causes a claimant to suffer loss or harm and leads to legal liability on the person who committed the tortious action).

In effect, the indebtedness of a patient does not give a hospital the right (in law) to detain such a patient. In fact, detaining a patient who has not paid his medical bill constitutes an infringement on such a patient’s rights to liberty and freedom of movement both enshrined in Sections 35 and 41 of the 1999 Constitution respectively. It would also amount to an infringement of the patient’s right under Article 11 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In 2018, the High Court of Anambra State held a hospital that detained an indebted patient liable for the tort of false imprisonment and awarded damages in the sum of N500,000 in damages against the hospital. You can read about this case HERE.

See also  Can Nigeria Police Recover Debt?

Again, Police are not Debt Recovery Agents

Also, the use of the Police to recover debt is not a practice sanctioned by the law. The Police are not debt recovery agents. As a corollary, being indebted is not a crime that could snowball or lead to criminal proceedings against a debtor. Where a party (a hospital in this instance) uses the instrument of the Police to intimidate or oppress an indebted patient, he does not go free. By a host of Court cases, the private individual who uses the police to settle a private score, would himself be liable for the wrongful act of the police. The Courts have held that a person who employs the police, or any law enforcement agency, to violate the fundamental rights of another citizen should be ready to face the consequences, either alone or with the misguided government agency.

Written by Frederick Nkobowo BL, LL.B


Our Authorities for the above include –

  1. FBN Plc v. Onukwugha (2005) 16 NWLR (Pt. 950) 120.
  2. Nwaoboshi v FRN (2023) LPELR 60698 (SC)
  3. Article 11 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  4. Section 35 of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution
  5. Section 41 of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution

You can read more on the practice and its legality here –

  2. Hospital Detention For Non-Payment Of Bills And Its Community Legal Effect By Chidera Nwokeke
  3. Curing our hospitals of a bad habit