Actions undertaken to be guilty of the criminal offence of theft

What is theft?

Theft is defined by section 1 of the Theft Act 1968 as the dishonest appropriation of property belonging to another with the intention to permanently deprive the other of it. The elements required to be proved are widely interpreted by the courts.

What elements need to be proved to establish theft in law?

Each of the following elements must be established for a defendant to be found guilty of theft:

  • Appropriation;
  • Of property;
  • Belonging to another;
  • Dishonestly;
  • With intention to permanently deprive.

Appropriation

Appropriation is defined by section 3 of the Theft Act 1968 as assuming the rights of a legal owner of the property without consent. The legal owner of property has absolute legal rights over his or her property, along with the other legal owners (if any). This means that if property has a particular function it would be the right of the owner to use it for that particular function. For example, if an individual owns a car they will have the right to drive that car and prevent anyone else from driving it. If another individual takes the car and drives it without permission, this is appropriation.

Appropriation also includes assuming the legal rights of the property where permission was originally granted, or the property had, for instance, initially been acquired honestly. An example would be taking a car for a test drive with the garage’s permission – this will not be treated as theft. However, if you fail to return the car within a given time and have no intention of returning the car, you will be guilty of appropriation under the meaning of the Theft Act.

Property

Property includes money and other property – both real and intangible, such as cash, debts, intellectual property (ie. copyright), and choses in action (ie. personal rights that can be enforced). Money includes bank notes and coins, money held in bank and building society accounts, and crypto currency such as Bitcoin.

Real property means land and anything fixed to the land, including houses and outbuildings. However, under section 4(2) of the Theft Act, land cannot be stolen unless one of the following elements occurs:

  • Where the defendant is a trustee, representative or has authorised power of attorney and deals with the property in breach of trust;
  • Where the defendant is not in possession of the property but appropriates anything forming part of the land by severing or causing it to be severed;
  • Where the defendant is a tenant and appropriates the whole or part of any fixture.

Personal property includes property other than land, such as vehicles, antiques and all other tangible objects.

A ‘chose in action’ is a personal property right which can be legally enforced. Examples include intellectual property rights, debts, rights arising under a trust, and a right to overdraw a bank account.

Intangible property is property which has no physical existence. The range of intangible property as recognised by the courts reflects the increasingly digital age in which we live and work today. Intangible property therefore includes digital and films that are streamed online, YouTube videos, webcam conference streams and database entries.

Mere information, including confidential information, has been held not to constitute property for the purposes of the Theft Act. In addition, electricity cannot be ‘stolen’.

Belonging to another

Under Section 5 of the Theft Act, property belongs to another person if that person has possession or control of it. So, for example, if the legal owner gives permission to a friend to borrow a guitar for the weekend and it is stolen by a third party – this element is still satisfied.

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For more information on:

  • Dishonesty
  • Intention to permanently deprive
  • Can I take something from the wild without committing theft?
  • What happens if property is given to another person?
  • What is the maximum sentence an individual can be given for theft?
  • Relationship between theft and fraud