Worried about legality of ‘civil recovery’ by stores

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Have your say

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

Q I have noticed that in a number of supermarkets and stores there are notices saying they participate in ‘civil recovery.’ My grandson has been sent an aggressive letter on behalf of a store saying he must pay £60 or they’ll take him to court. They are accusing him of shoplifting and imposing a penalty without going through any sort of independent investigation or trial. Is this legal?

DM (e-mail)

A No, I don’t believe it is.

I can understand retailers getting frustrated at losing more than £4bn a year to petty theft.

Because of the sheer number of alleged thefts, and all the paperwork that has to be completed to bring suspects to court, I can also understand why the police may have been compelled to take the view that small time theft has become a hazard of running a modern business.

Police forces are facing savage financial cuts and they have far more serious crime to deal with.

Arguably, retailers rarely lose out to theft because they build the cost of ‘shrinkage’, as they call it, into the price of the goods. In effect the customer always ends up paying.

I’m not trying to condone crime, just stating the obvious.

Civil recovery is about shops and stores employing intermediaries to write to alleged thieves threatening civil court action if they don’t pay up for the cost of goods which they claim have been stolen.

I suspect, like you, I am concerned that big powerful corporations believe they can impose solutions to their retail shrinkage problems by effectively dispensing with due process of law. This is a very worrying development and they have surely got too big for their boots.

Since Magna Carta, it has been the law of the land that no accused person should be subjected to arbitrary duress or punishment without a fair trial and everyone has a right to the presumption of innocence until proved guilty by due process of law.

As far as I know, no one has ever been taken to court as a result of a civil recovery threat. But that is not the point.

Shoplifting may be a headache for retailers, but undermining the fundamental principles of justice that have been part of our legal system for more than 700 years is not the way to deal with it.

Changing the process of law is the business of Parliament and our elected representatives.

Q You frequently refer in your column to ‘goods’. Although I count myself as a knowledgeable shopper, I’m never quite sure what you mean. Can you explain please?

SJ (e-mail)

A In law, goods have a precise definition. For the sake of simplicity, ‘goods’ are all personal possessions that can be bought or sold, including animals, but excluding money or property.

That explains why when you buy a house, for example, you don’t have the protection provided under the Sale of Goods Act 1979 and the subsequent law of consumer protection.

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.