There is a charity shop, which sells nothing but gives books away for free. They do accept optional donations of money, and any books donations so they have more books to give away for free.

Upon entering the charity shop, there is a sign saying that only a maximum of three books may be taken per visit.

Assume someone visiting the shop knowingly takes more than three books, without being caught at the time, but is discovered a short period of time later on CCTV.

In England and Wales, would this be a Criminal Offence or a Civil Matter?

  • 13
    this reminds me of the old comedy sketch where they go into a shop and eat the free parts of products offering "xx% free" - youtube.com/watch?v=JWtQW8vAslc
    – Aaron F
    Commented Mar 12 at 15:58
  • 9
    The bigger question is what if they leave, close the door, turn around and enter. That's another visit! Commented Mar 13 at 10:05
  • Can you first Post what 'theft' means to you? Can you then say what 'ownership' means to you? Commented Mar 15 at 21:48

2 Answers 2


This has been prosecuted criminally, in the scenario of people taking a huge pile of "free" newspapers to sell for recycling. See coverage in the Independent from 16 February 2019. Some previous prosecutions against the same or similar groups had been dropped but this one succeeded.

While copies of the Evening Standard are given away for free at train stations, the big stack of them is still somebody's property, and the socially expected arrangement is that a member of the public will take just one, rather than the lot. The reason they are being offered is to achieve a wide distribution among members of the public, and not because the owner simply wants to be rid of them, or wants to reward a random person with a minor recycling windfall. So, taking them in excess could intuitively be regarded as theft, because the person taking them is doing so in circumstances where the owner would not consent to the taking.

Beyond intuition, we have to look at the statutory definition,

A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it (Theft Act 1968, s.1(1)).

Clearly the newspapers are property, which belonged to another, and have been taken with no intention of returning them. The doubtful element in this instance was dishonesty, as other people in similar situations have argued that they genuinely believed they had the right to take the free goods. But when you are offered £30 to go to the box labeled "FREE - PLEASE TAKE ONE", and bundle the whole pile into the back of your van, it's hard to convince others that you thought there was nothing dodgy about it.

Books given away in a charity shop are just the same, since there's an understanding that the current owner is trying to distribute the books fairly, which is defeated if a single person swipes the lot.

As a civil matter, the corresponding tort is "conversion". A problem with pursuing a civil action is that the damages (the money you get back from somebody to make you whole after their wrongful deed) would generally be limited to the market value of the appropriated goods. For the newspapers, that's essentially 0p per copy from the retail value, or a few pennies per copy if we look at the cost to the newsagent of getting them in bulk. There is also a claim possible in unjust enrichment from the amount the thieves gained from the recycling, apparently £90 per load. It might be possible to argue for higher consequential damages based on the "value" of having copies of the Evening Standard in front of many tube travelers, but that seems pretty hard to quantify in a way that the Standard would be happy with declaring in public. (That also becomes subtle in that the publicity value is to the publisher, but the papers have been stolen from the newsagent, unless there is some sort of bailment arrangement. But we are drifting quite far from the original question.)

For the charity books there does not seem to be a commercial argument which would lead to a larger amount of money being involved. So although you might prevail in the civil case, the game still might not be worth the candle.

  • 5
    I think you could reasonably argue that the total cost of putting that stack of newspapers in that location was the value, since you were doing it by way of business. Commented Mar 12 at 11:54
  • 10
    Free newspapers get their revenue from advertising. So the papers need to be circulated for the advertisers to get their money's worth. Commented Mar 12 at 12:09
  • 9
    I suspect that if someone were to take four books, and say that one or two of them were for a friend, and that they didn't think the shop would mind if they saved the friend the trouble of visiting the shop personally, such an action would probably not be viewed beyond a reasonable doubt as exhibiting dishonest intentions. Likewise, someone who took more than three books after making a donation that was commensurate with the value of any books in excess of three. Someone who grabbed dozens or hundreds of books for resale, however, probably could and should be prosecuted.
    – supercat
    Commented Mar 12 at 17:34
  • 1
    I don't know if similar cases have been brought in the UK, but in the US this even applies to one's trash. Until it hits the curb (i.e. is out in the public for disposal) trash is the property of the person who put it in the can, and it can be stolen. Commented Mar 12 at 19:31
  • 4
    FWIW Colorado has a statute specifically authorizing criminal charges for excessively taking free newspapers.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Mar 12 at 21:30

If something is given away for free it still belongs to the person giving it away. Until they give it away.

They don't give away more than 3 books per visit. If one takes more, they steal the excess, and can be criminally prosecuted for theft.

  • Is there a difference between your answer and the above answer? Does your argument allow one to claim greater damages?
    – Lavie
    Commented Mar 14 at 17:27
  • 2
    @Lavie The other answer appears way more broad and less focused to me. I also do not explore the possibility of civil action as the matter is criminal first and foremost, and so it is implied that the victim could pursue it as civil on top of that if they like. I do not explore the magnitude of damages as it is not part of the question.
    – Greendrake
    Commented Mar 15 at 3:20

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .