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22 Dec 2011

Leveson inquiry – Piers Morgan, rubbish bins and the law of theft

In giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry, Piers Morgan admitted to using the services of Benjamin Pell, dubbed “Benji the Binman” by the press, a man who apparently built a career on going through the bins of celebrities and selling their rubbish to newspapers.  Mr Morgan accepted in his evidence to the inquiry that the act of removing material from a bin was “on the cusp” of being unethical but did not feel that this was illegal.  So much for the perception of ethics and legal knowledge of one former tabloid editor!

Under s1 of the Theft Act 1968, a person is guilty of theft if he or she dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.  The English courts concluded in Williams v Phillips as long ago as 1957 that when a householder places rubbish into a dustbin for collection, they are – for the purposes of criminal law – not taken to have abandoned the property. Therefore, even when the householder is required to place his dustbin in a place to which the public has access for collection, if another person (even the dustman) takes anything from that dustbin, they may commit the offence of theft from the householder.  Any person who takes possession of materials obtained in this way or arranges for the theft to take place may, if knowing or believing them to be stolen goods, also commit the offence of handling stolen goods pursuant to s22 of the Theft Act 1968.  A newspaper editor who commissions this kind of theft might also face prosecution as an accessory.

The legal position in these circumstances will be clear to Benjamin Pell, who was convicted for the theft of confidential waste in 1999. Reportedly, he was fined £20 for this offence. Since then we have seen the likes of Glenn Mulcaire being sentenced to six months in prison for phone hacking and we have witnessed public outrage at those tabloid newspapers who broke the law on an industrial scale.  One can imagine that the courts would nowadays impose a much heavier sentence on anyone, particularly a newspaper editor, who procures a modern day Benji to steal rubbish from a dustbin.

During proceedings, Lord Leveson advised Mr Morgan that his understanding of the legality of such conduct was incorrect and suggested that he may wish to seek legal advice on this point.  A wise way to spend his Christmas money, perhaps?

Corker Binning is a law firm specialising in fraud, regulatory litigation and general criminal work of all types. To find out more about how we can help you, visit our crime page.

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