Theft Act 1968
The Theft Act 1968 is arguably one of the most effective pieces of legal drafting in the post war era. It is now nearly 50 years since the Act was passed and yet it remains very much intact. It greatly simplified many of the definitions of offences and brought together a wide range of different statutes and offences. All of this will be explored in detail below.
The Act, which became law during the period of the Labour Government of Howard Wilson, was very closely based on a draft bill which had been published by the Criminal Law Revision Committee in 1966, following a seven year research programme. It replaced the Larceny Act 1916, which was the last of a series of Larceny Acts which had tried to provide a modern law of theft.
Section 1 of the Theft Act introduces the offence of theft. This included a completely new definition of the offence which identified five elements to the offence, all of which need to be present for the offence to be made out. These five elements are; dishonesty, an appropriation (i.e. taking), there must be property, it must belong to another person and there must be an intention to permanently deprive the owner of it. The next five sections of the Act expanded each of these concepts. However, they were not necessarily the final word on each of them. For instance, section two gives examples of what would not be considered dishonest, but did not attempt to define what would be. This was done in the case of Ghosh which introduced a two-stage test, part of objective and part subjective. It is then a matter for the jury or the magistrates to determine whether the prosecution have satisfied them that both stages have been fulfilled. The definition of theft applies to all types of theft, which are all covered by the offence. By contrast the Larceny Act contained a large number of different ways of committing larceny.
Section 8 of the Act defines the offence of robbery. This can perhaps best be described as theft with violence. An offence of robbery requires the use or threat of immediate violence to carry out a theft. It is an indictable only offence, meaning that it can only be tried at the Crown Court, and is therefore viewed as being one of the more serious offences in criminal law. By way of a comparison the maximum sentence for theft is seven years imprisonment, whilst for robbery it is life imprisonment. The section requires that the threat is to subject the person to whom it is made to immediate violence, i.e. that it will take place then and there rather than at any point in the future.
Section 9 of the Act covers the offence of burglary. There are two ways of committing the offence and the common element between them is that the offender must be a trespasser. A burglary is committed either if a person enters a property as a trespasser and then steals, but is also committed if a person enters a property as a trespasser intending to steal, even if they do not go on to do so. A burglary can also be committed if the offender causes criminal damage or grievous bodily harm. As originally drafted a burglary could be committed where the offender entered as a trespasser intending to rape, or actually carried out a rape, but that was removed by the Sexual Offences Act 2003 which consolidated all the sexual offences in the one place. A more serious form of burglary is found in Section 10, where the offence of aggravated burglary is created for where a burglary is committed and the offender has with them a firearm or other weapon. This carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Section 12 of the Act deals with the offence of taking without consent (“TWOC”). This makes it an offence to take any mechanically propelled vehicle (not necessarily a car) without the consent of the owner. The difference between this and theft is that TWOC does not require an intention to permanently deprive. It is also an offence under this section to drive a vehicle which has been taken without consent or to be carried in it (providing that the offender knew that the vehicle had been taken in that way). There is an aggravated form of the Act under Section 12A which deals with situations where damage or injury is caused or where the vehicle is driven dangerously.
Sections 15 and 16 of the Act dealt with various fraud offences. Here the Act was less successful than otherwise and various attempts were made to reform it. Eventually these sections were repealed and a new Fraud Act was introduced on the recommendation of the Law Commission. The only fraud offences which now survive under the Act are false accounting, some company offences and blackmail.
The final major offence within the Act is handling stolen goods. This can be committed by someone receiving stolen goods or by them assisting someone else to dispose of stolen goods. The theory is that there would be less thieves if there were no handlers and so the maximum penalty for this offence is 14 years imprisonment, double the maximum sentence for theft. The Act also provides that, irrespective of the bad character rules which apply normally to criminal trials, the court may be told about any convictions that the defendant has for theft or handling stolen goods within the past five years.
As well as these offences there are a number of other offences found within the Act which can be described as lesser offences. Abstracting electricity, dishonestly retaining wrongful credit and going equipped to steal are all types of behaviour which are criminalised under the act, as is advertising for the return of stolen property “no questions asked.”
Although the Act has stood the test of time, it has not been without its critics. Whilst the criticisms of former Law Commissioner Martin Allen within his book may be regarded as excessive the authors of Smith and Hogan have also raised concerns about aspects of the Act. Most notably the Court of Appeal have called for urgent reform of the Act, although their criticism seemed levelled more at the way that it has been interpreted by the courts as to any inherent shortcomings in its drafting. Despite these criticisms the Act has had a long and successful history and may be around for a long time yet to come.
Larceny Act 1916
Theft Act 1968 c60
Theft Act 1978
Aggravated Vehicle Taking Act 1992
Theft (Amendment) Act 1996
Criminal Justice Act 2003
Sexual Offences Act 2003
Fraud Act 2006
R v Ghosh  EWCA Crim 2,  QB 1053 (House of Lords)
Hallam and Blackburn  Crim LR 323 (Court of Appeal)
Allen M, Textbook on Criminal Law (13th edn, Oxford University Press 2015)
Criminal Law Revision Committee, Eighth Report: Theft and Related Offences (Cmnd 2977) (1966)
Law Commission, Fraud LC 276 (2002)
Ormerod D and Laird K, Smith and Hogan's Criminal Law (14th edn, Oxford University Press 2015)