It was reported recently that two men, who stole bundles of free newspapers to be sold on to a recycling plant, had been convicted of theft. One man was given a suspended sentence while the other was sentenced to eight weeks in prison. British Transport Police called the case a “landmark ruling” and the decision certainly caused many to scratch their heads – can you steal something that’s free?

While it may appear at first odd to suggest that one can “steal” newspapers that are free, such as the Metro or the Evening Standard, the case actually highlights the broadness of the offence of theft. Theft of newspapers, whether or not they are free of charge, has not suddenly become a criminal offence as a result of this case.

While the newspapers may be free, under the law of theft the papers will still “belong to another”, namely the proprietors of the newspaper concerned or another individual who has some sort of proprietary right over them, such as a shop keeper offering the papers to the public. The mere fact that the newspapers are “free” makes little, if any, difference to the question that the newspapers belong to another. This is much like the situation involving bags containing clothing, for example, left outside of a charity shop intended to be donated; the bags have not been “abandoned” and still belong to another, meaning that they are still capable of being stolen.

Furthermore, the law of theft does not require an “adverse interference” with the rights of another (i.e. the proprietors of the newspaper); the person can still be liable for theft in circumstances where they have “appropriated” or “dealt” with the property in question, even with relative permission. This means that the simple fact that the newspapers were free to take does not detract from the fact that a person can still appropriate such property in question.

In addition, the social contract which exists between the proprietors of the newspaper and the members of the public who choose to read such paper does not extend beyond the simple permissions granted to those persons who take a newspaper for their own use. It may be reasonable to expect a member of the public to take a number of copies of the paper – perhaps one for himself and two for his friends.

However, it is the case that one would go beyond their permissions should they take an unreasonable number of copies and then sell on those copies, or intend to do so, for their own benefit. While one could raise an argument that the defendants in the instant case lacked dishonesty because, for example, they genuinely believed to have a legal right to take the newspapers and sell them on, a jury would likely be unwilling to accept this given the fact that, in this particular case, the defendants took bundles of newspapers – not just one or two.

Furthermore, given that the test for dishonesty is an objective one, a jury would have no difficulty in concluding that the defendants in question were dishonest in that they acted in a way that the ordinary and decent person (the reasonable man) would not have. The law does not require the defendants themselves to consider their actions to be dishonest; the test is objective. Putting it simply, in the eyes of the law, theft of free newspapers has been a possibility for quite some time.

While this case is by no means “landmark” as suggested, there is some benefit to be gained from it.

First, it reminds the public that they must be alert to the question of whether they are within their rights to deal with free property in a certain way. For example, the taking of samples from a shop and later dealing with them in an inappropriate way – such as selling them on for a profit – would be outside of the rights of the public.

Second, it serves as a useful reminder as to the broad nature of the offence of theft for those involved in the criminal justice system. The case is not a landmark ruling; better yet, it is just another example of the broad nature of the offence of theft.

Mark Thomas is a senior lecturer at Nottingham Law School