The question of Vera's potential criminal liability must be examined in the context of her conduct, and how her conduct and the intentions behind it relate to the law. In this instance, the area of law that applies to Vera's possible liability, if any, regarding her "use" of Jack's property is the Theft Act 1968; of which, section 1(1), gives a broad if somewhat general definition: "A person is guilty of theft if he/she dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of depriving the other of it; and 'thief' and 'steal' shall be construed accordingly.
" It is the issues of conduct and intentions that are critical. The above definition would seem at first to be clear and unambiguous, but cases have shown just how both precise and vague the Theft Act can be. The most difficult area is probably in that of the actus reus (conduct element), and the use of the term 'appropriates', it is possible to give various interpretations, such as 'acquiring' or 'coming into possession of' however, s. 3 (1) gives the following definition:
" Any assumption by a person of the rights of an owner amounts to an appropriation, and this includes, where he has come by the property (innocently or not) without stealing it, any later assumption of a right to it by keeping or dealing with it as owner. "1 When Jack gave Vera the keys to his house and car, he also gave her certain implied responsibilities with regard to them; in part, 'some' of the 'rights of an owner'. As they live in a neighbourhood with a high crime rate, it would not be unreasonable for Vera to periodically go and check Jack's house and car, otherwise why would or should, Jack have given Vera the keys.
That it is possible that Vera had acquired or possibly 'appropriated' some of the 'rights of an owner', (even if only by her assumed conduct in 'looking after' Jack's house and car), can be illustrated by the cases of Smith and Jones2, and Morris3. In Smith and Jones, the case concerned the issues of trespass and burglary; the courts accepted the fact that Smith had a 'general permission' to be in and use the house as his own. This gives an insight into how a person can acquire or appropriate some of the 'rights of an owner'.
In Smith however, the court found that the defendant had exceeded these rights, and the expected duty of care that could be reasonably expected with such a 'general permission'. The concept that the term 'rights of an owner' need not be applied in whole, so therefore can be appropriated in part, is further reinforced by Morris, who with an accomplice, switched the price labels on two items, with the intention of purchasing the more expensive item at the cheaper price.
In doing so Morris, as discussed in Lord Roskill's judgement, usurped one of the 'rights of an owner' and took it for his own. This was followed in Gomez4 by Lord Keith, who stated, "Any assumption of any of the rights of an owner can amount to an appropriation. "5 Thus it can be seen that in being given the keys to Jack's house and car, Vera had consentually acquired some of the 'rights of an owner', this then leads to the questions concerning Vera's conduct, and the intention behind it.
For an offence contrary to the Theft Act 1968 to be satisfied, there has to be as already discussed, conduct that amounts to (1) an appropriation, (2) of property (3) which belongs to another, in addition it is necessary to prove the required mens rae; Ashworth,6 defines these as: (1) An intention of permanent deprivation; and (2) dishonestly. Though Vera's acquisition of some of 'the rights of an owner' was with Jack's consent, the courts have on occasion viewed the circumstances of acquisition and appropriation in a dishonest light.
The cases of Mazo 7and Hinks8 both go to show how the courts belief in honestly and dishonestly formed intention can make the difference between acquittal and conviction. Therefore, when considering Vera's actions, they must be examined in both terms of conduct and intention; with reference to Vera entering Jack's house and finding the already opened letter from the Lottery Operator, in reading it, her intentions may be seen to be somewhat dubious; if Smith and Jones were to be considered, she would have certainly exceeded the 'general permission' given to her by Jack and potentially liable as a trespasser.
In Gomez9, House of Lords, their Lordships inferred that interference with the property of another would amount to appropriation, regardless of whether the owner consented or not (in Gomez, it was consent that had been obtained by deception, rather than actual property). However the Court of Appeal in Easom10, stated, "a conditional appropriation will not do".
Thus as no material appropriation of Jack's property took place, at its worst, Vera's conduct could, had perhaps she had the expectation of finding a cheque and taking it for her own use give a potential liability for an Inchoate Offence contrary to s1(2) of the Criminal Attempts Act 1981; but it would be difficult, in light of Easom, for the prosecution to substantiate the necessary mens rea and actus reus for liability to be fixed.
Vera's position regarding her reading of Jack's letter is further mitigated by Oxford v Moss11, where the courts held that confidential information acquired, does not constitute property under s4(1). Under these circumstances, Vera's reading of Jack's letter should be viewed as nothing more sinister than misguided curiosity.