Monday, 21 November 2011

Robbery and Theft - an interesting case

Some very basic points of criminal law are highlighted by the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) judgment in George Vinall v R [2011] EWCA Crim 6252. 

The Theft Act 1968 was enacted following the 1966 report of the Criminal Law Revision Committee - "Eighth Report: Theft and Related Offences" - Cmnd 2977, 1966.  It was a "new start" for the law of theft.  The previous law was swept away and offences were framed in what, it was hoped, would be simple language thereby avoiding the technicality of the old law.  Since 1968, the law has been either extended or amended by the Theft Act 1978 and the Theft (Amendment) Act 1996.  The Fraud Act 2006 - (fully in force from 15th January 2007) - made further changes.  Whether the hopes of those who enacted the TA 1968 have been secured is a moot point since the criminal law textbooks take up many pages to analyse the modern law.

The facts of the Vinall case are fairly straightforward - (Judgment para 3).  Two young men were riding along a cycle path and came across three youths (two of whom were the appellants).  The youths adopted an intimidating manner to the cyclists and one cyclist was "punched from his bicycle" by the appellant referred to as J.  The man knocked from the cycle ran away and, it seems, was chased by one or more of the youths.  However, the youths later walked off with the bicycle but abandoned it in a nearby bus shelter.

Two of the youths were charged with robbery which is defined in the Theft Act 1968 section 8:

"A person is guilty of robbery if he steals, and immediately before or at the time of doing so, and in order to do so, he uses force on any person or puts or seeks to put any person in fear of being then and there subjected to force."

It will be clear from this definition that there cannot be a robbery unless the defendant stole something.  It is now settled law - (Raphael [2008] EWCA Crim 1014) - that the word "steals" in section 8 has the same meaning as theft - defined in section 1 of the TA 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."
Theft has the "actus reus" (i.e. proscribed conduct) of appropriation of property and also the "mens rea" (i.e. "guilty mind") of intention to permanently deprive the other of the property.   Furthermore, the appropriation has to be "dishonest" though, fortunately, this aspect of the definition need not trouble us further.

The Theft Act 1968 section 3 amplifies the meaning of "appropriation" and section 6 amplifies the meaning of "intention to permanently deprive."

A very basic point of law is that the actus reus and the mens rea must coincide in time.  If at the time when the youths took hold of the bicycle they intended to permanently deprive the owner of it then they would have stolen it at that time.  That combined with the use of force would justify a conviction for robbery.   However, if they formed the intention to deprive the owner of the bicycle at a later time, there would not have been a theft at the time the force was used and so no conviction for robbery would be possible.

The court concluded - (para 19):
    If the prosecution is unable to establish an intent permanently to deprive at the moment of taking it may nevertheless establish that the defendant exercised such a dominion over the property that it can be inferred that at the time of the taking he intended to treat the property as his own to dispose of regardless of the owner's rights ..... Subsequent "disposal" of the property may be evidence either of an intention at the time of the taking or evidence of an intention at the time of the disposal. When the allegation is theft a later appropriation will suffice; when the allegation is robbery it almost certainly will not. (Emphasis added). 
    and - at para 20: 
    " ... it was open to the judge to invite the jury to consider whether the later abandonment of [the] bicycle was evidence from which they could infer that the appellants intended at the time of the taking to treat the bicycle as their own to dispose of regardless of his rights. If that was the way the judge had chosen to leave the issue of intent to the jury, an explicit direction would have been required explaining that an intention formed only upon abandonment of the bicycle at the bus shelter was inconsistent with and fatal to the allegation of robbery. In the absence of such an explanation, it seems to this court that the verdicts were unsafe and must be quashed" 
     This case is well worth reading by law students as well as practitioners.  You never know - the examiner might base a question on it !!


    1. Thanks to the post. I really appreciate your efforts and information.These are really some interesting robbery and theft cases. All these cases teach us lesson that how you can be aware from such type of incidents

    2. A very informative and interesting post. It highlights the importance of paying attention to details. One mis-step and the matter as presented,suddenly appears to have a different meaning. But, the facts were there all the time.
      Thanks for sharing.