The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 received Royal Assent on 13th March 2014, while the changes addressed in this blog became effective on 13th May 2014. The provisions only affect proceedings which start on or after this later date.
From a criminal law perspective, the most significant development is the introduction of a new offence of “low value shoplifting”, whereby “shoplifting” of goods valued under £200 (not in fact an offence in itself, but “theft” under section 1 of the Theft Act 1968) is no longer to be an “either way” offence.
Section 176 of the Act inserts a new section 22A into the Magistrates Courts Act 1980 (MCA), removing the power of the Magistrates’ Court to decline jurisdiction or to commit for sentence when dealing with an offence that fits the definition set out in section 176(3): that the value of the goods concerned does not exceed £200 (to be amended in line with inflation over time), that they were being offered for sale in a relevant place and that the defendant was a customer or purported customer.
Crucially, the defendant’s right to elect trial at the Crown Court is preserved. If the defendant chooses not to elect, he may not later appeal to the Crown Court on the basis that the lower court erred in deciding that the offence fitted the low-value criteria.
In the event that the offence remains in the Magistrates’ Court, the maximum penalty is six months imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £5000. The offence now also falls under section 12 MCA, allowing a defendant to plead guilty by post.
The threshold of £200 – which applies to the aggregate value of a number of similar offences charged at the same time - is based on research done in 2006 for the Sentencing Advisory Panel, which showed that that 90 per cent of shoplifting cases involved property worth under £200.
The change is intended to allow the police, in due course, the option of using streamlined procedures for prosecution (without having to refer straightforward, uncontested cases to the CPS). It is not designed to reduce the number of prosecutions for shop theft or to reduce the penalty imposed. However, nor does the Act change in any way the power of the police to issue a Penalty Notice for Disorder (PND), and this remains an option even in cases where the value of goods stolen exceeds £200.
Consequential amendments are made to section 1 Criminal Attempts Act 1980, which otherwise limits allegations of attempted commission to indictable offences only and to powers conferred by PACE on police and, for example, store detectives (arrest, entry and search of premises and vehicles), are extended to low-value shoplifting where otherwise they are restricted to indictable offences.