Don’t be too hard on shoplifters, solicitors told

Solicitors acting for retailers have been advised by their regulator not to bring “disproportionate” civil claims action against shoplifters.

The latest monthly update from the Solicitors Regulation Authority, circulated today, says:

If you act for a retailer who is considering taking, or threatening to take, an action against its customers or employees for civil recovery of its costs, you may need to consider and weigh up the duties you owe to your client against those you owe to third parties and to the court.

This links to advice on the regulator’s website, in answer to the following hypothetical “ethical” problem (syntax corrected):

A large, high-street client has asked me to issue proceedings against a “shoplifter” for the costs of the stolen items, together with compensation for the loss and damage caused by the defendant’s actions; often this includes the cost of security staff involved in the incident.

The solicitor is advised: “you need to find a balance between fulfilling your obligations to your client and not taking unfair advantage of another person”.

The regulator’s monthly update also links to a summary on the Citizens Advice website of a report published by the charity and called Unreasonable Demands? The summary says:

Citizens Advice Bureaux have been dealing with increasing cases of clients who, accused of shoplifting or employee theft, are then pursued for substantial sums of money “as compensation for the loss and damage caused by your wrongful actions”.

Criminal charges are rarely brought and often the police aren’t even called. In some cases the intent to shoplift is questionable. Clients are then surprised to receive a letter demanding a large sum of money, weeks after the event, when they had thought the issue was resolved…

Whilst Citizens Advice doesn’t condone crime of any kind and does not underestimate the cost to retailers, we believe that if retailers are dissatisfied with the level of governmental action against retail crime, and seek civil redress, they must do so using means that are transparently fair and proper. 

Unreasonable Demands? sets out recommendations … that civil recovery should be limited to cases involving serious or persistent offences for which there has been a criminal conviction.

So now we know. A thief steals from a shop. The shopkeeper cannot persuade the police to take action. The shopkeeper therefore goes to the expense of instructing a solicitor to sue the thief. The solicitor must tell his client that the thief cannot be sued because the police failed to take action against him. Shopkeepers are denied compensation for their losses, thieves are not deterred and we all have to pay higher prices in the shops.

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