Is it an offence to fail to report a crime? In George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House”, which played this summer at the Chichester Festival Theatre, a burglar enters the house and is caught stealing some diamonds. After this is the following exchange:

“THE BURGLAR – Right. I’ll go to the police station and give myself up.

HECTOR – Oh, no. You mustn’t do that.

RANDALL – No no. Clear out man, can’t you; and don’t be a fool.

MRS. HUSHABYE – Don’t be so silly. Can’t you repent at home?

LADY UTTERWORD – You will have to do as you are told.

THE BURGLAR – It’s compounding a felony, you know.

MRS HUSHABYE – This is utterly ridiculous. Are we to be forced to prosecute this man when we don’t want to?”

In 1919, when this play was written, compounding a felony was an offence under the common law and was classified as a misdemeanour. It consisted of a prosecutor or victim of an offence accepting anything of value under an agreement not to prosecute, or to hamper the prosecution of, a felony. The word “compound,” in this context, means to come to a settlement or agreement.

Misprision of felony was an offence under the common law and was classified as a misdemeanour. It consisted of failing to report knowledge of a felony to the appropriate authorities and no payment was required. Exceptions were made for close family members of the felon. A person was not obliged to disclose his knowledge of a felony where the disclosure would tend to incriminate him of that offence or another.

The common law offences of misprision of felony and compounding a felony were both abolished by section 5(5) of the Criminal Law Act 1967 after a number of cases where they were called into question by the courts because the offence required no active criminal conduct other than the proof of the failure to report. Misprision of treason remains an offence and there are now strictly limited statutory offences of non-disclosure in relation to failure to report information relating to terrorism (where no exception for close family applies) and money laundering in the regulated sector. With these exceptions, since 1967, mere failure to report crime cannot ordinarily be punishable. Compounding an offence other than treason cannot now be an offence other than under section 5 of the Criminal Law Act 1967 which requires proof that more than reasonable compensation has been paid to a victim. It is invariably best to negotiate any such settlement through the police or a prosecutor if an investigation is under way but settlements of criminal offences are not uncommon and in many ways are to be encouraged, subject to proper oversight by a prosecutor.

And just to settle the minds of those concerned about the occupants of Heartbreak House, those catching Billy Dunn in the act of stealing the diamonds would not have been guilty of compounding a felony as they did not accept anything for not reporting him. However, they would have been guilty of misprision, with the possible exception of Nurse Guinness (who turns out to be Billy Dunn’s wife!).