Eminent Domain, or Compulsory Purchase, Makes It Into British Mystery TV

We don’t know how many of Our Readers are faithful watchers of the British TV/PBS show “Foyle’s War.” It’s a saga of Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle of the Hastings police department doing his thing in Hastings during Word War II. As the Brits say, a Good Show! Entertaining and engaging, and faithfully followed by your faithful servant. Now, there is a spin off, so presumably, there is more good stuff to come.

In the second series of “Foyle’s War,” Foyle retires from the police department and joins British intelligence. That one appears on the PBS program “Masterpiece Theater,” and we recommend it highly, particularly Episode VII, entitled “Sunflower” which is what this post is about. So what does that have to do with eminent domain, you ask. As it turns out, quite a bit.

Though not, strictly speaking, involving intelligence work, and though its main plot has to do with capturing a real nasty Nazi SS type wanted by the Yanks for killing American prisoners of war,*  Foyle runs across some hanky-panky in connection with the government’s wartime misuse of eminent domain, or compulsory purchase as the blokes put it. It seems that during the war a fellow’s land was taken for the war effort, “for the duration,” which is what we used to do over here as well. But a funny thing happened when the guns stopped shooting. The government failed to return the property, and when its former owner protested, offered to sell it back to him for twice the price it paid him only a couple of years earlier because — are you ready? —  that was the new value assigned to it by a compliant government “valuer” as they put it over there. Bad show!

The former owner is now pissed off and smells a rat, as indeed he should. It turns out that the Minister in charge of things is a wacko environmentalist who decides on his own that the world will be better off if the subject land is kept by the government and devoted to agriculture wherewith to help feed the British population which is still living with belts tightened as a result of wartime food shortages. So that’s the motivation.

Long story short, Foyle gets wind of all that skullduggery (including a transparently phony memory lapse on the part of the aforementioned “valuer”). Being a moral person who believes that the government should live up to its promises, Foyle informs the Minister that the jig is up and that it’s time to face the music (if you’ll forgive out mixed metaphors). Result: Minister resigns. Justice is done.

But wait a minute, you say. What’s this “justice” thing? Did the former owner of the subject property get it back? Or at least, was he paid damages for the government’s retention of its possession and use past the end of the duration of the war? No. At least not that you can discern any of that from the show.

Which goes to show that in the UK things are as bad or worse as in the good ol’ U.S. of A. — once property is taken by eminent domain over here, you don’t get it back even if the government took it under false pretenses. Check out a California Court of Appeal case captioned Capron v. State, 247 Cal.App.2d 212 (1966). Also see our discussion of that problem in Gideon Kanner, We Don’t Have to Show You Any Stinkin’ Planning — Sorry About That, Justice Stevens, 39 Urban Lawyer 529 (2007).

However , the good news is that over here, when the government retains taken property for a period of time exceeding the duration for which it took it, it has to pay additional just compensation.


*      We have to give the Brits their due for that one. The Yanks are depicted as honest straight shooters seeking simple justice, whereas the British intelligence types (with one reluctant exception) are depicted as lying, cheating, treacherous bozos, doing their best and then some to protect a Nazi mass murderer from justice. But in the end he gets his, in a manner of speaking, as the Yanks drag him off to face justice — or at least what passes for justice in prosecutions of former Nazis.


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