R v Morris [1983] 3 WLR 697

Definition of ‘appropriation’ in the offence of theft


The defendants were convicted of theft under s.1 of the Theft Act 1968 after switching the labels on products in a supermarket to obtain a lower price. One of the defendants was caught before he paid, while the other was only caught afterwards.


S.1 of the Theft Act defines theft as dishonestly appropriating the property of another with intention to permanently deprive. S.3 of the Act defines ‘appropriation’ as ‘[a]ny assumption by a person of the rights of an owner’. The defendants argued that switching labels on the products and paying a lower price did not amount to appropriation.


The convictions were upheld by the House of Lords. They held that the owners of the goods had a right to ensure that they were sold for the price the owner chose, which the defendants usurped when they switched the labels to be able to pay less. This amounted to an assumption of the owners’ rights, and therefore an appropriation.

The Lords also noted that this meant that the relevant appropriation, and therefore the actus reus for the offence of theft, was complete as soon as the goods had been removed from the shelves and the labels switched, regardless of the order in which this was done. It did not matter whether the defendants had yet paid for the goods: the offence of theft was already complete.

The offence of obtaining property by deception under s.15(1) of the Act should therefore be considered an additional, rather than alternative, offence, committed once the defendants had paid at the checkpoint. In the interests of simplicity, however, prosecutors might only charge the s.15 offence in such a situation, rather than both the s.1 and s.15 offences.