Could police arrest us for ‘trespassing’ in shop?

Craig Jenkins and his son Graham at HMS Sultan  Picture: PO Phot Nicola Harper

Families enjoy quality time at HMS Sultan fun day

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Each week former trading standards officer Richard Thomson answers your questions.

Q I was with my partner in a branch of River Island when we got involved in an argument with the manager over the price of a dress. The manager said we were trespassing and asked us to leave. The police were then called and we were threatened with arrest unless we left the shop. Where do we stand with this please?

JJ (internet)

A It’s a common fallacy that people have an automatic right to go into a shop and remain there for as long as they please, even if asked to leave by the management.

Many public places like shops, pubs, and restaurants are in fact private property. You may enter the property for the purpose of accepting ‘invitations to treat’ as sales are technically known, but if you are asked to leave you may become a trespasser if you don’t scarper promptly when you’re asked.

There’s a lot of confusion around about the law of trespass. Over the years most people have perceived that trespass is some kind of dastardly crime because there can hardly be a spare piece of land around that hasn’t sported a ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’ sign at some time or other.

In fact as trespass is not a crime you cannot be prosecuted, but it is an element of the civil law aimed at protecting people from the invasion of their property.

Clearly as trespass is not a crime, you cannot be prosecuted for it. In theory you can still wind up in the County Court and be ordered to pay damages to a property owner if you overstay your welcome.

The police have powers to ask trespassers to leave private property, and they may subsequently arrest anyone for criminal activity if they damage the property, use abusive or threatening language, or cause a breach of the peace. This is I suspect where you came in with River Island.

Q I’ve settled a dispute with home improvement company, but they still owe me nearly £6,000. I know if I sue them for the full amount I won’t be able to use the small claims court. Is the process different to bring my claim in the full county court?

JA (internet)

A No, the process for starting a claim for more than £5,000 is exactly the same as if you were using the small claims track. The main difference is the court will issue you with a number of directions, before a hearing date is fixed.

The steps tend to vary depending on the complexity of the case and whether the court orders a pre-hearing review.

I would not advise you to try to do it yourself. The terminology and practice rules can baffle an inexperienced litigant and you really do need to appoint a solicitor. Remember if you lose your case you will not have the same limitation on paying the other side’s costs, as you have when using the small claims track.

If I were in your shoes, I’d first take advice about limiting your claim to £5,000. I appreciate you’d like to go for the full amount, but you stand the chance of confining your action to the small claims track and limiting the payment of costs if you cut back your claim.

SMALL PRINT

Richard Thomson is a former trading standards officer with many years experience. If you have a question, e-mail him at richardjthomson1@sky.com and wherever possible he will try to provide practical assistance. Unfortunately he cannot guarantee to respond to every letter or e-mail. Richard Thomson welcomes letters from readers on consumer issues. Replies are intended to give general help or advice, not a complete statement of law.