What is the law regarding things you find on the street?25-Sep-2018

By John Arnold , Partner, Head of Commercial Litigation

Finders Keepers? This issue is a common one. What does the law require you to do when you come across something that isn’t yours? For example, a £20 note on the street? Let’s look at the specifics.


Finding Money 
Finders Keepers? Well, no, not always. You might have heard of the Nicole Bailey case; she kept a £20 note she found on the floor and ended up with a criminal record! Up until this incident, the law surrounding scenarios like this were ambiguous. However, this kind of behaviour is now regarded as ‘theft by finding’. 

The 1968 Theft Act describes theft as an act where you; “dishonestly appropriate property belonging to another”. Therefore, if you find money that isn’t yours and don’t try and return it, you legally fall under the definition of theft.

So, if you come across sums as little as £20, you should always endeavour to find the owner, as the bank note constitutes property that ‘belongs to another.’ The only loophole is if you can prove the property has been deliberately abandoned, and there’s usually no way of deciding that at the scene.

Consequently, it's imperative you take reasonable steps to find the owner, for example, by contacting the police. The usual process is if the money hasn’t been claimed within a certain period (usually 30 days), you may then be designated as the rightful owner of the cash and it’ll be returned to you.

What About Finding Money in a Cashpoint?
Luckily for us, most cashpoints retract cash if it isn’t taken, so this usually isn't an issue. However, if you find yourself facing this situation, you should do the following:
• Wait to see if the cashpoint sucks the money back in
• If this doesn’t happen, take the money and make a note of the specific machine, the amount, and the time, and head to the nearest police station or the bank operating the machine.

As tempting as it might be, don’t keep it for yourself. It’s easily traceable and should be returned to the original owner. Many ATMs also have cameras on or near them, so you could quickly be identified and end up with a criminal record for theft.

What About Taking Things from a Skip?
It would be safe to assume if someone puts something in a skip, they don’t want those items. Surprisingly, this isn’t always the case. If you don’t check, you could be liable for theft, because:
• They could change their minds about whether they want the goods
• There might be another reason why the property is in the skip
• The owners may want to double check what’s in the skip before they get rid of anything.

Considering these reasons, always ask permission before diving into someone else's skip!

You should also ask yourself whether the skip is on private land? If it is, not only could you be guilty of stealing, but also trespassing. Just because someone has a skip on their drive, doesn’t mean they want people going through their stuff, rubbish or not!

Treasure Trove
So, what do you do if you find buried treasure in your back garden? Or, want to take something of interest that's washed up on your local beach?

How you handle these finds in England and Wales is governed by the 1996 Treasure Act. Anything washed up from a ship constitutes a ‘wreck’, even if the boat isn’t strictly shipwrecked.

These goods belong to whoever owned them before they fell into the sea. If the goods end up washing up on the shore, whoever finds them must declare them within 28 days. If you fail to report these items, it could result in a prosecution for theft.

However, finding buried treasure is slightly different. If the goods are predominantly made from something substantial, say, silver or gold, and the heirs to the finding are unknown, the goods will be classed as ‘treasure’.

You're legally obliged to report the 'treasure' to your local coroner within two weeks of discovering it. Otherwise, you could face up to three months imprisonment or an unlimited fine. If it’s declared as treasure trove then the value of the piece will be split between yourself and the landowner where the item was found.

For more information about our Property Law services, please contact a member of the Commercial Law team on 01244 356 789 or email info@cullimoredutton.co.uk

Please note: This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.