Thomas Bonham v College of Physicians (1610) 8 Co Rep 114 (Dr Bonham’s Case)
Common law; statute law; parliamentary sovereignty; constitution
Bonham, a trained medical doctor, petitioned to join the College of Physicians but was rejected. A short time later he applied for membership again; this time his rejection was accompanied by a fine and a threat of imprisonment should he continue his practice. As Bonham continued his medical practice, he was to be arrested. Bonham told the College that he would continue working as a doctor and claimed that the College had no power over Oxford and Cambridge graduates. Bonham was imprisoned as a consequence. The College sued Bonham for a fine for maintaining an illicit practice at the King’s Bench, to which he responded by claiming trespass to the person and wrongful imprisonment.
The College claimed to have statutory basis for its allegation that it was free to decide who could practice medicine and to punish those without a licence, including by way of imprisonment. Bonham argued that the statutes aimed to prevent malpractice but did not relate practice without a licence.
The two-judge minority sided with the College based on its position as a valid licensing authority. They held that the statutes conferred powers on the College that were to be exercised on behalf of the King (as it was the King’s duty to care for the sick). However, the majority found for Bonham. Sir Coke, delivering the majority judgment, claimed that the power to impose fines on those involved in illicit practice and the power to imprison practitioners for malpractice were separate. Thus, working without a licence did not amount malpractice and the College did not have the power to put Bonham in prison. He found that the statutes allowing the College to act as both a party and a judge were absurd, so “in many cases, the common law will control Acts of Parliament” and could render them void.