Finders aren't always keepers

When solicitor Anne Hind, of Blackpool-based firm John Budd & Co, took on a client seeking legal advice over ownership of a medieval brooch he had found, she could not have anticipated the extent to which the case would run.

And Hind's experience and her past brushes with the laws of treasure trove did little to equip her for the representation of amateur treasure hunter Ian Fletcher.

The case has now taxed the minds of a deputy High Court judge and three Appeal Court judges. But by the time it first reached court, Surrey coroner Michael Burgess had already decided that treasure trove was not the issue.

Hind, working with counsel Robert Beecroft and James Munby QC, went on to advance a case which has raised important questions over the long-established principle of 'finders keepers'.

And many who pursue treasure hunting as a hobby could be affected by the outcome.

Hind said the issues of the case boiled down to whether everything found on land belongs to the landowner or whether the principle of 'finders keepers' should prevail.

In the High Court, Deputy Judge Fawcus dismissed a claim by Waverley Borough Council that the brooch should be handed over because it was found by Fletcher in one of the council's public parks.

The Court of Appeal, led by Master of the Rolls Sir Thomas Bingham, however, overturned that decision and effectively held that the 'finders keepers' principle does not apply to metal detector-toting treasure hunters who venture onto local authority land.

The appeal argument against the council was led by James Munby QC, better known for his expertise in commercial law and law relating to sensitive human issues, such as the 'right to die' cases.

Munby suggested that as the land on which Fletcher found the brooch was designated for pleasure and recreational use he should be allowed to keep his find.

The argument was based on the fact that he was legitimately using the park for a recreational purpose, namely amateur treasure hunting, and that if the council wished to establish a legal claim to the brooch, it needed to demonstrate an intention to exercise control over the land and things found on it.

Fawcus accepted the argument that metal detecting, which is recognised by official recreational bodies as a widely-supported hobby, should be seen as a recreation for which the public could use the park.

However, the Master of the Rolls, who sat with Lords Justices Auld and Ward found that view "strained".

In Blackpool, Hind, a solicitor since 1984 and one of six partners in her firm, is predictably disappointed with that approach. "It was a case in which the legal principle of hundreds of years standing, that landowners own everything on their land, and the principle of 'finders keepers' collided head on," she said.

The possibility of an appeal to the House of Lords is now under consideration – Hind said that she considers the verdict has confused rather than clarified the issue.

In the meantime she fears the decision as it presently stands could result in many finds of historic importance now being hidden by the public.

"It is human nature that if a person finds something valuable and believes that it will be confiscated if they hand it over to the authorities – unless it is classified as treasure trove – they will say nothing about it," she said.