Dating back to the twelfth century, detinue is one of the oldest forms of action in common law, along with the action of debt—a lawsuit for a specific sum of money owed. In detinue a favorable judgment awarded the plaintiff the actual chattels—items of personal property—or their value in money. For example, an action of detinue was available against someone who wrongfully refused to return goods that were held subject to a BAILMENT, such as a deposit for safekeeping or repair. It could be used against an executor who refused to turn over a deed for the deceased person's property to the proper heir. Since the plaintiff did not have to show wrongful detention to prove his or her case, the action was appropriate for recovering goods from a thief as well as from someone who first acquired the property lawfully.
There were several drawbacks in an action of detinue. The defendant could prove his or her case by WAGER OF LAW, for example. That meant that the defendant could swear in open court and bring along eleven neighbors who would take an oath that they, in good conscience, believed the defendant was telling the truth. If the plaintiff won the case, the defendant was required only to give up the items in question. This was small comfort when the goods were damaged or spoiled, since there was no remedy at detinue for harm done to the property while it was in the hands of the defendant. By the fifteenth century, plaintiffs were able to use the more satisfactory form of action on the case, and in the sixteenth century a special kind of action on the case, called TROVER, was introduced. After that, these forms were used much more often than detinue to recover personal property.
Today the action of detinue has been almost entirely superseded by statutes that streamline CIVIL PROCEDURE, but the principles underlying the ancient COMMON LAW form of action are still the foundation of modern actions for the recovery of personal property.