Does refusing to pay for a restaurant meal constitute theft?

Can’t pay or won’t pay?

When you go into a restaurant and order food to eat, you and the restaurant are entering into a contract. The restaurant agrees to supply you with food in exchange for your payment – typically, you pay the bill on completion of your meal.

A restaurant is required to provide good, safe food as advertised and/or shown on their advertisements, flyers, menu and other media. When you order food in the restaurant, you are demonstrating that the prices for the menu displaced are acceptable – and you have the means to pay for the meal.

Reasons for non-payment

However, sometimes a diner cannot or will not pay for their meal for several reasons. Sometimes, a diner can legally refuse to pay the bill. Others may refuse to pay the bill for no good reason, or even eat with the intention of leaving a restaurant and avoid paying.

Inability to pay

It is not unheard of for a diner to inadvertently be unable to pay; for example, a purse or wallet has been lost or stolen, or a bank card is declined so that payment is impossible at the time. If possible, payment should be made using different means, whether cash, another card, or by another diner who is with you. In this age of technology, you may also be able to make a bank transfer via your smartphone, if you have one.

Most establishments have procedures in place in circumstances where you really cannot pay: if you are a regular, known customer then you will probably be asked to pay as soon as you can without being asked for any additional guarantees, or to pay next time you come.

If you are not a known patron, there’s a small possibility you may be asked to leave something of value. This would serve as a surety for the establishment. Others may simply ask you to come back and pay later – or when you next visit, while other restaurants may ask for your personal details such as your name and phone number.

If you refuse to pay, this is a different matter.

Does a refusal to pay amount to theft?

The criminal offence of theft is that a person is guilty of theft if they dishonestly appropriate property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.

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For more information on:

  • Consumer Rights Act
  • Final words