Oxford v Moss (1979) 68 Cr App Rep 183

Application of the Theft Act 1968 to confidential information in an examination paper


The defendant (M) was a civil engineering student who dishonestly obtained the proof of an examination paper. After he had read the paper he returned it. He was charged by the university authorities with theft of confidential information.


The magistrate dismissed the charges on the basis that there had been no appropriation of “property” in terms the Theft Act 1968. The prosecutor appealed and argued that confidential information could be “property” within section 4(1) of the 1968 Act. Section 4 expressly makes reference to “intangible property.” The question for the opinion of the High Court was whether confidential information was a form of intangible property and whether the owner had been permanently deprived of intangible property.


On appeal, it was held that whilst M’s conduct was to be condemned and would be described by a layman as cheating, the confidential information so obtained by him did not fall within the definition of “intangible property” and so could not be the subject-matter of a charge of theft. It was not appropriate to draw a comparison in this case with cases emanating from the area of trade secrets and matrimonial secrets. Such cases concerned the duty to be of good faith and were concerned principally with preventing unfair advantage being taken of confidential information. The present case concerned whether there is property in the relevant information which is capable of being subject to a charge of theft and the clear answer to that question was no. It followed that there was no intention to permanently deprive the owner of the so-called intangible property.