Telegraph 4th October - Legal loophole closed to prosecute persistent fuel thieves. They are then asked to sign a document acknowledging that they owe the money and, of course, they do do not return to pay. There appears to have been some reluctance to prosecute such individuals for theft. From the legal perspective, it is necessary to consider the definition of theft.
The basic law is to be found in the Theft Acts 1968, 1978 and the Theft (Amendment) Act 1996. These Acts were based on recommendations of the Criminal Law Revision Committee's 8th report (1966) and 13th Report (1977). The 1996 Act was enacted to address the House of Lords decision in R v Preddy and others  UKHL 13 but this need not concern us further here.
The Acts are the authoritative sources for the definitions of theft and related offences. They
have been subjected to a mass of (sometimes conflicting) judicial interpretation and it is important to note that offences relating to appropriation of property can be defined only in relation to the underlying civil law of property. Thus, section 5 of the Theft Act 1968 states when property is to be treated as belonging to another but, for example, to determine where a person has a 'proprietary right or interest' is a question of civil property law.
The basic definition of theft is in section 1 of the Theft Act 1968: - 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.
Each word of that definition has to be considered carefully and sections 2 to 6 have effect as regards the interpretation and operation of section 1. The filling up of a fuel tank will be an appropriation of property (the fuel) and, at that point, the fuel belongs to another (the garage proprietor). The difficulty relates to 'dishonesty.' The individual who genuinely thinks he has his bank card with him but, having filled up, finds that he had left it at home might not be considered to have acted dishonestly at the time of filling up the tank. Of course, the dishonest individual will claim that he genuinely believed he had with him the means of payment. It is therefore a question of proving 'dishonesty' and it is for the prosecution to establish that element of the offence to the criminal standard of proof (beyond a reasonable doubt).
Theft Act 1968 section 2 sets out three instances where appropriation of property belonging to another is not to be regarded as dishonest - e.g. where the individual believes that he would have consent to the appropriation. The instances are particular examples where Parliament considered it necessary to make a clearer statement and, therefore, section 2 is not a comprehensive definition of dishonesty. In the usual types of fuel-taking case, the instances in section 2 do not assist us and it is necessary to turn to the case law.
The concept of dishonesty is difficult to define. It measures the conduct of the defendant against values implicit in society's notion of the sanctity of property. The test cannot be an entirely subjective one since that would enable each individual to set his own standards of right and wrong. The judges have developed a two-stage test set out by the Court of Appeal in R v Ghosh  2 All ER 689. The court's judgment was delivered by Lord Lane CJ who stated:
'In determining whether the prosecution has proved
that the defendant was acting dishonestly, a jury must first of all
decide whether according to the ordinary standards of reasonable and
honest people what was done was dishonest. If it was not dishonest by
those standards, that is the end of the matter and the prosecution
If it was dishonest by
those standards, then the jury must consider whether the defendant
himself must have realised that what he was doing was by those standards
dishonest. In most cases, where the actions are obviously dishonest by
ordinary standards, there will be no doubt about it. It will be obvious
that the defendant himself knew that he was acting dishonestly. It is
dishonest for a defendant to act in a way which he knows ordinary people
consider to be dishonest, even if he asserts or genuinely believes that
he is morally justified in acting as he did.'
The first part of this test requires the fact-finders (jury or magistrates) to have a clear view about what was actually done. Without such clarity, the test cannot be sensibly applied. The typical fuel taker has entered the garage, filled up his car, gone to the payment point and then said that he has just realised that he did not have the means to pay with him. Such facts would be proved by evidence in the usual ways - e.g. CCTV showing the car at the garage; evidence as to what the fuel taker said etc. Is such conduct dishonest by the ordinary standards of reasonable and honest people? The conduct itself is equivocal since it could the actions of the honest as well as the dishonest. Therefore, the question cannot be answered properly unless the state of mind of the individual at the time is considered. If he knew that he did not have the means to pay then it would be very likely that fact-finders would conclude that the conduct was dishonest by ordinary standards.
For the purposes of the first part of the test, just what are the ordinary standards of reasonable and honest people? Different sets of fact-finders (jurors or magistrates) might well reach different conclusions depending whether they take a lenient or strict view. For example, some would probably argue that reasonable and honest people would who go to petrol stations would check that they have the means to pay before filling up the tank.
If the fact-finders find against the defendant on Limb 1, then they must consider Limb 2 of the Ghosh test which considers what the defendant himself must have realised. Did he realise that his conduct would be seen as dishonest by ordinary standards. In most fuel-taking cases, the answer would be that he did. .
The application of the Ghosh test is therefore not necessarily straightforward. The test is discussed in the many textbooks on criminal law. It has been criticised by academic writers - (see References below). The Law Commission discussed it extensively in Part V of their 2002 report on fraud. The Commission noted:
'Dishonesty is a defining element of all the major Theft Act crimes .. It is, however, an unusual element, because it necessitates a moral as well as a factual enquiry.
Traditionally, crimes consist of objectively defined conduct or events (external elements) and mental states (fault elements), subject to circumstances of justification or excuse (such as self-defence or duress), In general the fact-finder's task is (a) to determine what happened, (b) to determine what the defendant's state of mind was, and (c) to apply those facts to the definition of the crime in question, to see whether each of the external elements and fault elements have been made out. It is unusual for the fact-finders to be asked to decide whether they think the defendant's conduct or state of mind was sufficiently blameworthy for it to constitute a crime.'
In Dishonesty and the Jury: A case study in the moral content of law Richard Tur (Oxford - profile) argued:
'I take the concept of dishonesty as an example of standard-bearing concepts generally..... In my view such concepts are not and cannot be exhaustively and
exclusively defined by the law. Rather, they reflect extra legal standards of social conduct. The existence of such concepts
in the law suggests a general thesis, namely that any functioning legal system necessarily incorporates and reflects values
immanent in the community which it serves. Such a thesis supports these propositions: law is simply too important a matter
to be left solely to lawyers; not all law is 'lawyers law' and one should guard against an academic tendency to convert
questions of practical moral philosophy into technical questions exclusively determined by the law; .....'
The Crown Prosecution Service point out that proving the section 1 offence is likely to be problematical but it might be possible to make out a case for the use of theft where there are repeated incidents or where false details were given by the defendant to the garage. In such circumstances it could be inferred that the individual knew exactly what they were doing and had formed the necessary dishonest intent at the point that they drove on to the petrol station forecourt.
There is a helpful discussion of the Ghosh test at Law Teacher. It may be that the Ghosh test eventually proves to be too vague a way to define criminal liability. In Hashman and Harrup v UK, the European Court of Human Rights required law to be sufficiently precise so that the individual could know whether his conduct would infringe the law. Any appellate court minded to adopt that view would then face the difficulty of putting forward an alternative way of defining dishonesty which remains a key ingredient in criminal liability for many Theft Act offences.
Theft Act 1978 section 3:
In some situations the 1978 Act section 3 offence will apply but it cannot apply where the individual has not 'made off' without payment.
Cost of debt recovery via proceedings in the County Court will often exceed the amount owed for the fuel. However, fuel retailers have a scheme operated by the British Oil Security Syndicate (BOSS) and this indicates that debts can be sold on to debt collection agencies.
As well as the links embedded in the above, the serious student / practitioner may wish to see:
Elliott - Dishonesty in theft: A Dispensable concept  Crim MLR 395
Campbell - The Test of Dishonesty in R v Ghosh (1984) 43 CLJ 349
Griew - Dishonesty, the objection to Feely and Ghosh  Crim LR 341
Halpin - The test for dishonesty  Crim LR 283
Steel - The meaning of dishonesty in theft (2009) 38 Common Law World Review 103
New Zealand's approach to dishonesty