Is it fair that a woman who found a discarded £20 note in a shop was convicted of theft?

Admit it – we’ve all done it: found some loose cash on the ground and pocketed it. To most, this is a fairly innocent act; nobody is going to mind, are they?

This was the conundrum faced by Nicole Bailey from Stoke-on-Trent who spotted a £20 note lying on a display unit in her local convenience store. She proceeded to take the money. ‘Score’ she might have muttered. However, that act resulted in her being convicted of theft by Staffordshire Magistrates court.

The ‘theft’ itself has divided opinion and sparked fierce debate across the country. Many agreed with Bailey’s decision to pocket the money, saying the resulting treatment had been harsh. Others said that she was ‘morally wrong’ and should have at least handed the money in to the shop owner.

Perhaps the only reason for Bailey being caught red-handed was the diligence of the loser of the money. He took the unusual step of following up the rather small loss, going as far as requesting that CCTV from inside the shop be viewed. The fact that Bailey was a regular customer meant the shop worker recognised her and she was reported to the police. Had the money been picked up outside on the street, this method of catching the perpetrator might not have been as accessible.

Tracing the owner of lost property

The legal definition of theft refers to dishonestly taking property belonging to someone else with the intention of keeping it. Anybody finding something that could belong to someone else should take ‘reasonable steps’ to reconcile the owner with their property. If they do that, they will be considered to have acted honestly and fall outside the legal definition.

What counts as ‘reasonable steps’ for this purpose will vary depending on the circumstances, particularly what the property is and where it is found. In this case, Bailey could have asked the shopkeeper about the discarded money; that would have been a reasonable step to take in trying to discover the money’s rightful owner. By keeping quiet about her discovery, Bailey was effectively deemed to be acting dishonestly. The situation might have been different if she had found the money outside on the street. In those circumstances, it may have been reasonable to assume that it would not be possible to discover the money’s owner.

A cautionary tale?

Many people might think that such a trivial theft only warranted a police caution and being dragged to a court room was a little extreme for what could be termed a ‘lucky find’.

Perhaps Bailey should have followed the example of a woman who found £60,000 in water whilst walking her dog back in 2013. She informed the police, choosing not to retrieve some of the notes which were in a more reasonable condition. Admittedly, this was a much more significant find than that of Bailey and possibly only a very brazen individual would have had the audacity to pocket the cash.

Was Bailey perhaps considering another situation from 2013, which highlighted that handing money into the authorities does not guarantee that you will be allowed to keep it if the original owner cannot be traced. In this incident, a builder found £17,000 in a burnt out flat which he was renovating. He was termed a ‘very honest man’ by the judge overseeing his appeal. Even so the judge did not find him entitled to keep the money, highlighting that it doesn’t always ‘pay’ to be scrupulous. Although the police could not trace the origin of the money, they deemed it to be criminal in nature.

Whatever it was that went through Bailey’s mind as her eyes lit up at the sight of the £20, it resulted in her having to pay compensation of the ‘stolen’ £20 note, along with £135 in costs and a £20 victim surcharge. Although this case has provoked wide ranging sympathy, it is likely to make us all think twice when we are tempted by cash lying on the ground.

For further information, please contact:

Sophie Brookes, partner, Corporate

T: 0161 836 7823

E: Sophie.Brookes@gateleyplc.com 


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This blog is intended only as a synopsis of certain recent developments. If any matter referred to in this blog is sought to be relied upon, further advice should be obtained.