Leaving a restaurant without paying the bill, or putting fuel in the tank of your car and driving off without paying, or taking a taxi ride and running off without paying, may each be a criminal offence for which you can be prosecuted. This is because ‘making off without payment’ amounts to theft in law.
Under section 3 of the Theft Act 1978, it is a criminal offence if someone knows that payment on the spot is required from them for goods supplied, or a service done for them, but that person dishonestly makes off without having paid. They must also have intended to avoid such payment.
What needs to be established?
The prosecution needs to prove each of the following elements of the offence to secure a conviction:
- Making off
- Without payment
- Knowledge that payment is required on the spot
- Goods were supplied or services provided
- An intention to avoid payment
If we take the example of leaving a restaurant without paying the bill, making off will occur when an individual goes beyond where the payment is required or expected. This would include leaving the restaurant premises, but not simply leaving the table to go to the toilet.
Without payment means what it says: not providing the cash, card or other available digital payment for the goods or services.
Knowledge that payment is required
The individual must have known that payment was due at the place expected. No liability can arise if the person thought the goods were free or offered on credit.
Goods supplied, or services done
Goods or services must have been supplied for which payment would be expected. Under section 3(3) of the Act, no offence is committed where the supply of goods, or the provision of a service is against the law or not legally enforceable (for example, paying a bank robber’s getaway driver).
Intention to avoid payment
The individual must also have known that payment was required, yet intended to leave without making payment – and had no intention of coming back to pay, or ever paying for the goods or services.
When deciding whether someone has acted ‘dishonestly’, the court will give it its usual plain meaning. If dishonesty is denied, the court may apply a two-stage (objective and subjective) test set out in R v Ghosh (1982) to determine whether the defendant was dishonest at the relevant time:
- According to the ordinary standards of reasonable and honest people, was what was done dishonest?
- If it was dishonest by those standards, did the defendant realise that reasonable and honest people would regard the conduct as dishonest?
What are the sanctions?
Defendants convicted in the Magistrates’ Court can be fined up £5,000 and/or jailed for up to six months. In more serious cases, if the defendant is convicted in the Crown Court (or sent to the Crown Court for sentencing), they can face a prison term of up to two years and/or an unlimited fine.