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Abuse of process is a cause of action in tort arising from one party making misusing or perversion of regularly issued court process (civil or criminal) not justified by the underlying legal action. It is a common law intentional tort. It is to be distinguished from malicious prosecution, another type of tort that involves misuse of the public right of access to the courts. The elements of a valid cause of action for abuse of process in most common law jurisdictions are as follows: (1) the existence of an ulterior purpose or motive underlying the use of process, and (2) some act in the use of the legal process not proper in the regular prosecution of the proceedings. Abuse of process can be distinguished from malicious prosecution, in that abuse of process typically does not require proof of malice, lack of probable cause in procuring issuance of the process, or a termination favorable to the plaintiff, all of which are essential to a claim of malicious prosecution. "Process," as used in this context, includes not only the "service of process," i.e. an official summons or other notice issued from a court, but means any method used to acquire jurisdiction over a person or specific property that is issued under the official seal of a court. Typically, the person who abuses process is interested only in accomplishing some improper purpose that is collateral to the proper object of the process and that offends justice, such as an unjustified arrest or an unfounded criminal prosecution. Subpoenas to testify, attachments of property, executions on property, garnishments, and other provisional remedies are among the types of "process" considered to be capable of abuse.
The principles which led to a finding of an abuse of process in the UK were stated in Johnson v Gore Wood & Co by Lord Bingham.
A cause of action for abuse of process is similar to the action for malicious prosecution in that both actions are based on and involve the improper use of the courts and legal systems. The primary difference between the two legal actions is that malicious prosecution concerns the malicious or wrongful commencement of an action, while, on the other hand, abuse of process concerns the improper use of the legal process after process has already been issued and a suit has commenced. In abuse of process, the legal process is misused for some purpose which is considered improper under the law. Thus technically, the service of process itself—in the form of a summons—could be considered abuse of process under the right circumstances, e.g. fraudulent or malicious manipulation of the process itself, but in malicious prosecution, the wrongful act is the actual filing of the suit itself for improper and malicious reasons. As noted above, the three requirements of malice, lack of probable cause in the issuance of the process, and a termination of the prior proceeding favorable to the plaintiff, are essential elements for malicious prosecution. Most jurisdictions do not require any of these three elements in order to make out a prima facie case for abuse of process.
A cause of action for abuse of process may lie in situations where a criminal proceeding is brought against a defendant for improper motives. For example, in Lader v. Benkowitz, a pleading was held to state a good cause of action for abuse of process when it alleged that defendant hotel owner had threatened to have the plaintiff arrested on a warrant issued at the behest of the defendant on a charge of disorderly conduct.
The allegedly improper motive was the hotel owner's underlying purpose of compelling plaintiff to pay a bill owed for plaintiff's alleged rental of a room in defendant's hotel. It was claimed that through the unlawful use of the warrant and threat of arrest, the defendant was able to obtain the sum of money allegedly owed by plaintiff. In denying defendant's motion to dismiss, the court admonished that it was sufficient to show that regularly issued process had been used to accomplish an improper purpose in order to set forth a cause of action for abuse of process.
The fact that the plaintiff had yielded to defendant's threat to have her arrested under the warrant did not diminish the cause of action, because it was clear that the plaintiff actually had been arrested for the purpose of compelling her to pay the cost of the room.