March 13, 2024
Aspiring solicitors or barristers interested in criminal law should be aware that statistics are showing theft, burglary, and robbery are on the rise in UK shops.

What is happening in UK shops?

In 2023, around 5 times as many reports of shop-based theft occurred in Britain compared to the year before – a huge increase and a new all-time record. 

There are a number of reasons for this growth, although many are pointing to the cost-of-living crisis as something which is turning many individuals to crime. Others are pointing to a lack of police on the streets (‘on the beat’) – the loss of this deterrent being something which might encourage criminals to take such risks. The police did announce a ‘Retail Crime Action Plan’ recently in order to attempt to limit these offences, and have reported positive results so far – though the long-term impact is yet to be seen.

Most of the items being stolen are relatively high in value – for example alcohol or meat, which can then be sold on for a hefty profit in the right context. Some concerned individuals also tie this developing story to a complex, inter-linked increase in drug/alcohol addiction and homelessness across the country. The government are supposedly attempting to limit this via highly controversial proposed legislation which seeks to introduce a number of criminal offences targeting vulnerable individuals on the street. 

For shopkeepers, this is, of course, extremely concerning to read. Not only is there a huge loss of profit for them as business owners (the Association of Convenience Stores say each shop loses an average of almost £5,000 per year as a result), but a particularly worrying proportion of these crimes are being carried out through threat (or even carrying out) of violence. 

What are the criminal offences here?

With that complex mix of theft and violence in mind, it might be interesting for aspiring lawyers to understand what kind of criminal offences are likely to arise here (as is covered in many undergraduate law degrees or the PGDL). There are three main ones that may come up with a story like this – theft, robbery, and burglary. Without going into detailed, technical analysis, we can briefly discuss what this means in practice. 

The Theft Act 1968 s1(1) states that: ‘a person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it’. This is a fairly complex offence, and you will need to walk through each section of actus reus (the guilty ‘action’ – here that is ‘appropriation’, ‘property’, and ‘belonging to another’) and mens rea (the guilty ‘mind’ – here that is ‘dishonestly’ and ‘with intention to permanently deprive’) in order to secure a conviction. 

Robbery is essentially a more serious version of theft which basically involves the usual theft requirements plus an attempt to put someone in fear of violence. The official definition from the Theft Act 1968 s8 is: ‘a person is guilty of robbery if he steals, and immediately before or at the time of doing so, and in order to do so, he uses force on any person or puts or seeks to put any person in fear of being then and there subjected to force’.

Finally, we can overview burglary. This is dealt with by the Theft Act 1968 s9, but actually comprises two different routes to securing a conviction – either s9(1)(a) burglary or s9(1)(b).

The differences are quite technical, but the key point is this – s9(1)(a) deals with the defendant trespassing and intending to commit another offence (stealing, grievous bodily harm, or criminal damage – so theft is not actually required here), while s9(1)(b) deals with the defendant trespassing and actually attempting to steal or inflict grievous bodily harm. Since we are discussing commercial settings rather than residential ones in this story, you are generally looking at a maximum 10-year prison sentence.


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What kind of lawyers will deal with theft, robbery, and burglary?

The main practice area engaged here is clearly Criminal law. As discussed above in detail (with the relevant offences), a great deal of work is likely needed in this area to bring perpetrators to justice. 

Most criminal issues on local levels will not be handled by large corporate law firms (think your Magic Circle firms, elite US firms, etc). This is firstly because this is not generally their specialism, and secondly, because their fees are often restrictively high for any local shopkeeper to afford in the first place. Instead, most of the groundwork done in this area will be carried out by regional law firms or ‘high street solicitors’.

Barristers also have a key role to play here. Once the initial work has been done, barristers (both for the prosecution and defence) will often be required to appear in court to argue the case. At this stage, there will likely also be a judge, jury, and numerous other stakeholders involved.

Individuals interested in law but who do not wish to qualify as a lawyer might also consider working for the CPS, who are the body in England and Wales which prosecute for these offences on behalf of the state. Numerous administration-based roles and paralegal opportunities exist in these contexts, and can lead to a fascinating career making a real difference. 

How could I discuss this story at interview for larger corporate legal employers?

This is not to say that larger corporate firms and chambers will have no involvement in these issues, and that you cannot bring these points up on your application form, or at interview (for opportunities such as training contracts, pupillages, etc). In fact, it might even show a level of skill to be able to link a story like this (not inherently corporate on the surface) to the kind of work these employers carry out.

One point to note is that a variety of shops are being targeted in this crime-related development. While a local corner shop is unlikely to turn to Allen & Overy or Hogan Lovells for advice here, if Tesco or Sainsbury’s are experiencing this trend as something which majorly impacts their profits across the country, then it may well be time to call in lawyers from those kinds of firms. 

Furthermore, it can be worth considering how other practice areas intersect with this story. Tort law, for example, could be worth considering – especially issues like vicarious liability and employers’ primary liability, which deal with how compensation is paid to employees or victims caused by employee efforts to catch a criminal. Another related area which could arise here is employment law – what rights does any employee on standby at the time of the crime have, and how will they be protected?

Finally, remember that large law firms will often maintain sizeable pro bono projects, where you could get involved with these kinds of issues on a voluntary basis (and sometimes even have those hours counted towards your billable hours).

Key Takeaways

In short, this story reflects the importance of developing a new generation of competent criminal law professionals. This is an issue which affects a great deal of local communities and which many aspiring lawyers will feel a sense of pride in pursuing justice for.


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