Theft is probably best defined by reference to the theft act 1968.

'A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it; and thief and steal shall be construed accordingly' Theft Act 1968, Section 1 (1).


The Theft Act 1968 was passed as a result of the work of the Criminal Law Revision Committee on this area of the law. Amongst other things the old law was based on the concept of larceny and needed to be brought up to date. The 1968 Act was an attempt to bring together the law of theft in one modern statute.


The new law was deliberately drafted in such a way as to be much wider and broader in its' application than just dealing with situations covering stealing by taking and, as a result one of the elements consists of the principle of appropriation (Section 3). The meaning of appropriation has been tested in the courts on a number of occasions since and attention needs to paid to such cases as Lawrence (1972), Gomez (1993), Hinks (2000) and Briggs (2003).


Appropriation occurs when a person assumes the rights of the true owner. The courts have also determined through case law that any assumption of any of the rights of the owner will suffice and that this can arise irrespective of consent. As is often the case, consideration of examples of situations which have been held to amount to an appropriation will probably help.


In R v Briggs (2003) the Court of Appeal ruled that appropriation did not include circumstances when the act complained of did not involve a physical one which was considered too remote. The case concerned the defendant's handling of a property transaction on behalf on her elderly relatives. It is important to remember however that the appeal only concerned one charge of theft arising out of the handling of funds and that other convictions, including forgery and obtaining property by deception, were not appealed against. The case supports the view that there are limits to the construction that can be placed upon 'appropriation.'


Turning to Section 4  we are helped by being told that property includes real and personal property as well as things in auction and other intangible property. Rather bizarrely this may include the removal of a urine sample previously provided for analysis by the police (Welsh (1974)).


Apparently body parts preserved for scientific examination can also amount to 'property' capable of being stolen as in R v Kelly and Lindsay (1998).


On the subject of intangible property, many law students find the case of Oxford v Moss (1979) of interest in that it concerned a student who acquired the proof or draft of an intended examination paper as part of a plan to cheat. The student's plan did not include an intention to steal the paper as such, only an intention, presumably, to copy it in some way. The court held that information of this kind did not amount to property for the purposes of the Theft Act 1968. Examples of intangible property include such things as patents, copyrights (something which is causing widespread concern and debate in the context of illegal music downloads), shares and interests in insurances.


The words 'belonging to another' (Section 5), are broadly interpreted and the words are capable of including persons who have possession or control as well as people having a proprietary right or interest. This point can be illustrated by the case of R v Turner (No 2) (1971) in which the defendant left his car with a garage for repairs and returned after the work had been done and took the car away without reporting this to the garage or paying the repair bill. The defendant's conviction for theft was upheld on appeal on the basis that it was clear that the garage were exercising possession and control over the car in accordance with the wording of the Act.


The case is distinguishable from R v Meredith (1973) where the court ruled that the police were not exercising control in the case of a vehicle impounded for causing an obstruction. The police were found only to have a right to enforce a statutory charge.


Section 5 also deals with property which has been given for a particular purpose, and treats such property as belonging to another if that party deals with it in an unauthorised way. In the case of R v Hall (1973) the point arose where a travel agent took deposits for air flights to America and placed the sums in general trading accounts. The firm went broke and the the court reluctantly found that the firm were not necessarily under an obligation to deal with the customer's money in a particular way which meant that the customers were not protected and the company could not be accused of theft.


In Davidge v Bunnett (1984) a defendant who was given money by fellow flat mates towards the payment of a communal gas bill, was convicted of theft when she spent the money on Christmas presents.


Section 2 of the Act deals with dishonesty which is required in terms of the mens rea of the offence of theft. The Act does not define dishonesty as such but it does set out what does not amount to dishonesty or what, in effect, may amount to a defence.


Section 2 (1) (a) provides that a person is not dishonest if they honestly believe they have a legal right to the property.


Section 2 (1) (b) provides that a person will not be dishonest if they honestly believe the owner would consent if they knew about it


Finally Section 2 (1) (c) provides that a person will not be dishonest if they honestly believe the owner cannot be found, having taken reasonable steps to do so – if an honest belief is not held then this is theft and often referred to as stealing by finding.


A jury  must decide if the defendant was dishonest by the standards of the reasonable man and additionally that if the answer to that question is yes, that the defendant also knew that what they were doing was dishonest by that standard. The two-fold test is therefore partly objective ( the standard of the reasonable man) and partly subjective (their knowledge). Invariably the jury will fall back on what they consider to be reasonable when considering the first part of the test.


Section 6 deals with the element of the 'intention to permanently deprive.' The courts have determined that this means that this is an intention to take forever or to take for a time, which in effect means an outright taking, even though the defendant may have intended to return the property.


An example of a borrowing which could lead to a conviction might be the taking of something such as a season ticket which is then used for the duration of its validity and then returned after it had expired. Such a taking would in effect have been to equate to an intention permanently to deprive, as it effectively deprives the holder of the season ticket to the benefits of its use.

For further detail and links to many of the cases mentioned above  go to the essay:

Define and explain the criminal liability for theft as defined under section 1 theft act 1968 including the various elements of the offence that need to be proven

Theft - Actus Reus (Part A) Compiled by Carol Withey, Principal Lecturer in Law, University of Greenwich, London.YouTube

Theft - Actus Reus (Part B) Compiled by Carol Withey, Principal Lecturer in Law, University of Greenwich, London.YouTube

Theft - Mens Rea Compiled by Carol Withey, Principal Lecturer in Law, University of Greenwich, London.YouTube

Law and Lawyers: Robbery and Theft - an interesting case

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