An amendment to the Theft Act 1968 in relation to appropriation, becomes central to the discussion when a single mother takes advantage of a vulnerable adult.

As a single parent, the appellant befriended an older man who while living alone, was of low intelligence and in need of daily care, and yet through the course of their relationship, the appellant manipulated the man into withdrawing small sums of money from his £60,000 inheritance, almost to the point of exhausting his funds, before walking away with his television set.

Having been caught and convicted of theft under section 1 of the 1968 Act, the appellant continued to claim that her actions were honest, inasmuch as he had agreed to give her the money, and had accompanied her to the building society in order to facilitate the withdrawals.

In addition to this, she claimed that those gifts were for the betterment of herself and her young son, and that the television set was simply another act of charity on his part.

With her contention dismissed by the Court of Appeal, it was left to the House of Lords to examine the precision of the Theft Act 1968 and those terms applicable to appropriation.

Prior to the drafting of the 1968 Act, it was expressed in section 1(1) of the Larceny Act 1916 that:

“A person steals who, without the consent of the owner, fraudulently and without a claim of right made in good faith, takes away and carries away anything capable of being stolen with intent, at the time of such taking, permanently to deprive the owner thereof.”

Larceny Act 1916

However, when examining the terms of the Theft Act 1968, section 1(1) instead reads:

“A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it; and ‘thief’ and ‘steal’ shall be construed accordingly.”

Theft Act 1968

This variance (or absence) of words was what the appellant relied upon when claiming that the monies given were gifts, and that despite any subjective opinion that her receipt of them constituted a criminal act, she was in fact innocent and therefore wrongly convicted.

When considering the finer points of theft and the decision by Parliament to broaden the effect of theft under the 1968 Act, it had already been agreed that in both R v Lawrence and R v Gomez, appropriation of property belonging to another under dishonest circumstances was still tantamount to theft, even where knowing consent had been provided.

In Lawrence, a taxi driver had overcharged a foreign student in the knowledge that the fare ought to have been less; at which point, the student duly paid, while In Gomez, a shop owner allowed payment for goods by cheque on the pretence that the cheques were valid, particularly after his conspiring employee confirmed their authenticity.

Those two cases were identical in context, inasmuch as the victims were misled into parting with property on the assumption that the transactions were honest; however, the appellant had induced her victim into believing that he had the funds to give away and that the cause of his donations was genuine as opposed to one of her simple greed.

This raised further questions around his ability to understand his decision making, and whether her appropriation under false pretences allowed her to circumnavigate the law and avoid penalty.

With a degree of division, it was finally decided that despite any argument that relinquishing property under conscious knowledge could not amount to theft, the dishonest intentions of the recipient were encompassed by section 1 of the Theft Act 1968, regardless of whether the donors believed the act to be lawful, while the House reminded the parties that:

“In practice the mental requirements of theft are an adequate protection against injustice.”

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