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. Making off without payment is a form of theft. In relation to leaving a restaurant without paying, the individual/s will be guilty of theft if it can be proved that they intentionally ate at the restaurant with the deliberate intention of leaving without paying the bill.

However, many people refuse to pay the bill in full or in part because they are unhappy with the food and/or the service. In this case, the matter is a civil matter and not a criminal matter.

Consumer Rights Act

If you are unhappy with the quality of food and/or the service you have received, you may have the right to a price reduction or a refund under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 (CRA). Diners are legally entitled to have food provided with reasonable care and skill.

The CRA sets out various rights and remedies available to consumers who receive poor service or poor quality goods from business organisations. However, if the food is not good (ie. it is not of satisfactory quality), it is best to bring it to the attention of the waiting staff or the manager to strengthen your position.

If the diner believes the food was defective (eg. the bread is stale or the vegetables are old and inedible, or burnt, or the meat is off) they may have an arguable case to refuse to pay at all, or negotiate a price reduction. It must be remembered that tastes are subjective, so what may be burnt or overcooked to one diner may be perfect to another. There must, therefore, be room for negotiation between the parties – and reasonableness on both sides.

If possible, take photographs of the food: these could be useful as evidence if it becomes necessary. If you are concerned that you could become ill as a result of food you have eaten, it is worth remembering to try to take a sample of food home with you. This could be vital if you are seeking compensation for your pain and suffering.

Final words

Diners have specific rights under the law in relation to goods and services – this includes food and drink served in a restaurant. However, the taste and food experience is to a large extent subjective: what is great food to one person may not be to another.

This means diners who don’t feel they should pay their bill must be able to recognise, as far as possible, what comprises a failure on the part of the restaurant to comply with their legal duty, and what are unacceptable expectations or a misunderstanding regarding the quality and presentation of the food.

Restaurant owners must honour the reasonable expectations of the patrons. This means honouring price promises on promotional materials, advertising and menus. Where diners are not happy with the food provided, the parties should attempt a reasonable settlement of the matter.

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.