This article was written by Anushka Ganguli, a student of Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law. 

What is Conspiracy?

Conspiracy has always been recognized as a crime primarily, since the inception of the penal laws. In this article, our primary focus would be to explore a less explored dimension, and pursue conspiracy as a civil wrong. Sanctions against conspiracy, as a tort, originated in the medieval period in England, in the narrow context of redressing abuses of criminal procedure. Later, it went on to be treated as a civil remedy for the damage done by a combination of persons to corrupt justice. But with the development of the modern law of torts, it is considered a remedy for damage done to a person by combination of two or more persons acting in concert for the purpose of causing him harm or loss.

A conspiracy is an unlawful combination of two or more persons to do that, which is contrary to law, or to do that which is harmful towards another person or to carry out an object not in itself unlawful by unlawful means.[1] It may consist in the agreement of two or more persons to do an unlawful act or to do a lawful act by unlawful means.[2]


 By Dr. Winfield: In view of Dr. Charles H. Winfield, “the tort of conspiracy is committed when two or more persons combine to cause damage to a third person by unlawful means and damage actually results in”.

By Salmond: According to Salmond, “when two or more persons, without lawful justification combine for the purpose of willfully causing damage to the plaintiff, and actual damage results there from, they commit the tort of conspiracy”.

Landmark judgments:

Legislation as a concept is relatively easily understood across most of the legal systems. However, due to our Common Law heritage, case laws have particular importance in India. They often give rise to certain important principles to constitute a wrong and adding more dimensions to it, thus inviting greater attention. Development of Conspiracy as a civil wrong basically took place through coming up of various cases. Following are a few cases discussed that put forth significant principles related to the same.

1) Malice isn’t an essential ingredient to constitute conspiracy.

The fact that malice in the sense of malevolence or ill will was not an essential requirement for the fulfillment of the tort of conspiracy, and that the combiners could not be held liable for conspiracy as long the act of combiners is lawful but results in damage to the plaintiff, was discussed in Moghul Steamship Co. v. McGregor Gow & Co.[3] In this case, the defendants were an association of ship owners, who had been indulged in tea-carrying trade between China and Europe offering reduced freight rates with a view to monopolize the trade. This resulted in huge losses to the plaintiff, who was a rival trader. Hence he sued the defendant’s association for conspiracy. The House of Lords did not hold the defendants liable since they had not used any unlawful means to achieve their objective.

The principle was reiterated in the case of Allen v. Flood[4], the plaintiffs were two workers (shipwrights) engaged on repairs of wood relating work of a ship. There were some iron-workers were also involved on the same ship. These iron-workers came to know that the plaintiffs had been previously employed for doing the iron-work in another ship. Thereafter, they decided in a meeting of their union to not to work with the plaintiffs, and cease the work until the plaintiffs were discharged by the ship-owners. This was informed to the ship owners by Allen, an official of the union. Thereupon, the ship owners discharged the plaintiffs. Now these wood workers were anyway employed on a daily basis, so there was no breach of contract. These discharged and unemployed shipwrights sued the iron-workers union official Allen for conspiracy. It was further held that the defendants were not liable as he did not do anything wrong in just conveying the decision of the union to the ship owners and secondly, even if the act was malicious, their discharge from work was not wrongful as such. The plea of the defendants was no directed against the plaintiffs, but was only to protect the interests of the iron-workers and could not be termed as conspiracy.

2) That a combination of persons with the purpose of causing loss or damage to the plaintiff will not be actionable per se, some actual damage must be caused to him.

Another leading case, decided by the High Court of Mysore and primarily based on Allen v. Flood was B Kangayia v. D.P. Gangadharan[5] discussed this principle.  However, it must be noted that Section 120-A of the IPC doesn’t mention about this concept of damage caused and a mere unlawful combination may result in punishment.

Jyoti Prakash v Nandi v. Jhumal Johrey[6], the High Court of Calcutta observed that a combination amongst bidders at an auction, not to bid against each other, even if the combination amounted to ‘knock out’ did not necessarily give rise to an action for conspiracy. The distinction between an honest combination among willing buyers and a dishonest concert for suppression of all competition was made by the Court. The former does not give rise to an action for conspiracy, while the latter does amount to one. A asimilar case was decided by the High Court of Calcutta itself, Ambika Prasad Singh v. Whitewell and Sitaram Singh[7]. The court observed that the object of agreement among the bidders is the test to accomplish whether a combination is lawful or otherwise. The object would be termed as fraudulent, if the object is to obtain property at a sacrifice by trickery. It cannot be considered fraudulent if the object is to make fair bargain or even to divide the property for the accommodation of the buyers.

Civil verses Criminal Conspiracy

Aforementioned, conspiracy is a civil as well as criminal wrong in India. Conspiracy in its criminal sense is defined as:

When two or more per­sons agree to do, or cause to be done,—

1) An illegal act, or

2) an act which is not illegal by illegal means, such an agree­ment is designated a criminal conspiracy: Provided that no agreement except an agreement to commit an offence shall amount to a criminal conspiracy unless some act besides the agreement is done by one or more parties to such agreement in pursuance thereof.

Explanation.— It is immaterial whether the illegal act is the ultimate object of such agreement, or is merely incidental to that object.[8]

The difference between civil and criminal laws is that the former involves crime against a specific party of person while the latter involves crime against the society, state, or the government. Generally, civil cases are brought by private individuals, while the criminal cases are brought by federal, state, or local government in response to violation of a rule. In a criminal conspiracy, the actors are intending to commit an act that is punishable under criminal laws. A civil conspiracy can occur when two or more people conspire to commit an act that is not criminal, but still unlawful, and another person is injured by the act.

But the main difference to distinguish between a civil and criminal conspiracy is that in the former, a mere agreement between two or more individuals to commit an offence doesn’t qualify as an offence, the presence of an overt act is essential, while in the latter even a mere agreement constitutes an offence. The offence of Criminal Conspiracy is punishable under Section 120-B of the Indian Penal Code. The damage caused in the tort of conspiracy is in the form of loss of employment, business, trade, etc.

It is more often observed that in criminal conspiracy cases, if the conspiracy involves multiple crimes, those involved will still only be charged with a single act of criminal conspiracy. Say, it gives rise to a lot many crimes that are followed and becomes the inception point for them to occur.


The real object or purpose of introducing conspiracy as an offence was to suppress the seditious and anti-governmental activities of freedom activists in India. Conspirators have long been regarded with suspicion, and the word ‘conspiracy’ carries the most evil of connotations. The laws regarding the tort of civil conspiracy vary from state to state. Several states do not even recognize civil conspiracy as a separate tort, even if conspiracy exists as a crime under a state’s criminal laws. Even in India, only matters involving coercive methods used by trade unions and the employers or the management fell under the scope of civil conspiracy. When these matters grew to an extreme, statutory legislations were enacted to regulate and monitor these industrial relations between workers and the management, like the Trade Union Act 1926, and later replaced by the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. This became the reason why judicial decisions on the tort of conspiracy are rare and few. Further, the Competition Act, 2002 further restricted the scope for civil litigation in the form of conspiracy as a tort, and became another reason for the reluctance of Indians to invoke this civil remedy.


[1] Per Lord Brampton in Quinn v. Leathem, (1901) AC 495 (528)

[2] Per  Willes, J., In Muleahy v. The Queen

[3] (1892) AC 25

[4] (1898) AC 1.

[5] AIR 1961 Mysore 178(181)

[6] (1908)ILR 36 Cal 134; Bhagwani v. Ganga Bisan, (1940) 42 Bom LR 750.

[7] (1907) 6 CLJ 111( 115)

[8] Section 120-A, Indian Penal Code

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