Abuse of Authority

… a core concept in Ethics, Rights, and Accountability and Atlas111M

AbuseofAuthorityConcept description

In the Canadian public service, the term “abuse of authority” is often used to indicate one of two meanings. In its first conception, “abuse of authority” is a legal term of art used within the employment context to denote the improper use of position, power or authority to influence the employment or career of another person. In its second and broader conception, “abuse of authority” may mean political corruption more generally – that is, the use by government officials of otherwise legitimate legislated powers for private gain.

Some sources suggest that the concept of “abuse of authority” differs from the concept of “abuse of power.” It is notable that these distinctions may be merely academic with little practical distinction – for example, in Canadian tort law, “abuse of power” and “abuse of authority” are both often used to denote the tort of misfeasance in public office, which may give rise to a claim in damages.


The term “abuse of authority” is a unique legal term of art used in the context of labour and employment law. For example, the Canadian Public Service Employment Act provides individuals with recourse to a complaints process should they not be appointed to various public service positions, on the basis of the improper exercise of appointment authority provided to the Public Service Commission.

According to the Public Service Commission of Canada, “abuse of authority” is given a particular wide definition (in the federal Canadian context) as “an intentional improper use of a power” under that Act. Canadian Courts have taken a similarly broad approach, holding that improper conduct, omissions, errors, bad faith, personal favoritism and a reasonable apprehension of bias may all, in some cases, give rise to “abuse of authority” claims under the Public Service Employment Act.

This concept of “abuse of authority” appears in other employment contexts as well, for example in the Human Resources User Guide of the United Nations Development Programme.


“Abuse of authority” has also been used to mean political corruption more generally. In this form, abuse of authority indicates the use of political power by government officials for private gain, or to maintain their hold on power. Abuses of political power for other purposes including political repression, police brutality, etc., is not generally considered to be included in this conception of “abuse of authority.”

There are generally two sub-types of this conception of the abuse of authority. The first involves the accumulation and extraction of private gain through the instruments of authority. The acts in question by government officials would often be legal, but for their intent to maximize the official’s private gain. This sub-type of abuse of authority often includes using government revenues or the economy at large for the official’s own gain. Activities under this sub-type include extraction, embezzlement, rent-seeking behaviour, plunder and kleptocracy.

The second sub-type of this conception of “abuse of authority” includes activities aimed at the preservation and extension of political power through the use of resources extracted by a government official’s legislated authority. Activities under this sub-type of abuse of authority may include favoritism and patronage politics, and the politically-motivated distribution of financial and material inducements, benefits, etc.


Drawn from USLegal Inc., Political Corruption Law & Legal Definition, at http://definitions.uslegal.com/p/political-corruption/, accessed 12 January 2016.

Additional sources include:

Canadian Abridgement Words & Phrases, Abuse of Authority, accessed 12 January 2016.

Government of Canada, Public Service Employment Act, at http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/p-33.01/FullText.html, accessed 12 January 2016.

Lawson Lundell LLP, Claims for Misfeasance in Public Office: A Brief Summary, at http://www.lawsonlundell.com/media/news/181_ClaimsforMisfeasance.pdf, accessed 12 January 2016.

Public Service Commission of Canada, Public Service Commission Glossary, at http://www.psc-cfp.gc.ca/abt-aps/gls/index-eng.htm, accessed 12 January 2016.

United Nations Development Programme – Office of Human Resources Bureau Management, HR User Guide Chapter I: Duties and Responsibilities, Section Workplace Harassment & Abuse of Authority, at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/UN_system_policies/(UNDP)Policy_on_Workplace_Harassment_and_Abuse_of_Authority.pdf, accessed 12 January 2016.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Responsibility and Accountability (core topic) in Ethics, Rights, and Accountability and Atlas111M Ethics.

Page created by: Dave Marshall, last modified by Ian Clark on 31 May 2016.

Image: Author’s design, using elements from ClipShrine.com, http://www.clipshrine.com/old-man-silhouette-13780-medium.html, accessed 12 January 2016 and Silhouette Graphics, http://www.silhouettegraphics.net/stylish-man-silhouette-graphics/, accessed 12 January 2016.