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Skipping and the law … Part II

A group of freegans check out the contents of a bin

A group of freegans check out the contents of a bin – but could they end up on the wrong side of the law? FlickrID:sam.kronick

Skipping, dumpster diving, scavenging. Call it what you will, the act of taking food (or any other item, for that matter) from a bin can land you in hot water if you aren’t careful. Last month we gave you an overview of the legal issues surrounding freeganism, and today we bring you a more in-depth analysis of the situation in the UK.

The legal term we’re dealing with here is called “theft by finding”. Broadly speaking, it concerns situations where someone picks up an object, believing it to have been discarded by its owner. The owner in question could be a large, multinational supermarket, or just another person who has dropped – intentionally or otherwise – something belonging to them. In the context of this blog, of course, we’re dealing with situations more similar to the former than the latter.

The two key issues in any case concerning theft by finding are those of abandonment and dishonesty. As we explained in the previous post, if an object has been truly abandoned, it is impossible to steal it. The problem here is that it is difficult for a defendant to base their defence on grounds of abandonment if they have made little or no attempt to contact the original owner in order to establish whether or not this is the case.

If; however, a scavenger can show that they took reasonable steps to try to contact the object’s prior owner, and were unable to find out whether the item had been abandoned or not, they may have more of a case. Case law shows mixed results for this line of defence. In her paper “Bridges v. Hawkesworth and the Early History of Finding”, legal expert Alice Tay collates several cases where a failure to inquire as to an object’s ownership led to a defendant losing their case, but a number of others where no such proof was required in a successful defence.

The second important factor is the dishonesty – or otherwise – of the act of taking the object. Sean Thomas, a senior law lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, explains in his paper “Do freegans commit theft?”, that if an item is taken in an honest manner, this cannot legally be considered theft. If; however, an individual has plans, for example, to sell-on the object, or to use it in any other way that could be deemed dishonest, they are likely guilty of theft.

The upshot of this is that while taking part in some casual ‘skipping’ in its truest form should not see you clapped in irons, it’s always worth taking a couple of extra steps to make sure you’re sure of being on the right side of the law. Wherever possible, make sure the owner of the items in the bins has truly abandoned them, and take care to ensure that whatever you do with the items you take cannot be deemed dishonest.

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