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Civil Recovery (England and Wales) Debate

22nd March 2011

Jonathan Djanogly sets out the Government's position regarding civil recovery against those accused of shoplifting.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes)for providing me with this opportunity to outline the Government's position and the action being taken in respect of civil recovery.

The Government are firmly committed to working alongside business and trade associations to find effective solutions and responses to business crime, including retail theft. My right hon. Friend identified that civil recovery is dealt with by a number of Departments in addition to the Ministry of Justice-for example, the Home Office, in preventing and tackling retail crime; the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, in retail business, sponsorship of Citizens Advice and employment relations; and both DBIS and the Office of Fair Trading, in consumer protection legislation. As my right hon. Friend requested, and as I will come to later, the Law Commission is reviewing this area, and officials in the Departments that I have mentioned will respond in due course.

Civil recovery is the legal means by which anyone who has suffered a financial loss due to the wrongful actions of someone else can seek appropriate compensation under civil law. Civil recovery schemes are used by many high-street retailers to deter shoplifting and recover from shoplifters the management, administration, security and surveillance costs incurred in dealing with the case, including the costs of the civil recovery action itself. That ambition is both understandable and justifiable. Shoplifting is not a victimless crime. Businesses employ civil recovery agents to recover through the civil courts often relatively low-value losses arising from, for example, shoplifting or employee theft. The alternative would be criminal proceedings rather than a suit, with the likelihood of a criminal record for the person being prosecuted.

Retailers have a clear legal right to recover the costs of goods that they lose as a result of crime. The Government recognise the appropriate and proportionate use of civil recovery as one option available to retailers for dealing with low-level criminal activity that also amounts to a civil wrong. We believe that civil recovery, when used proportionately, provides an effective response to low-value and often opportunistic crime that often involves teenagers and other vulnerable people.

The national retail crime steering group set up by the Home Office with the British Retail Consortium provides a forum for the Government, law enforcement agencies and retailers to discuss and devise strategies for tackling crimes of concern to retailers. At that national level, the Government are working with industry and business to broker solutions that cannot be solved by local action alone and to promote the sharing of effective practice. The group focuses on the significant crime issues affecting businesses, including tackling shop theft, violence against staff and the growing threat of e-crime, to adopt a task-focused, action-orientated approach.

We are encouraging businesses to do more to protect themselves from crime. Effective crime prevention advice is available for businesses to use, and we are making it a priority to share effective practice examples of businesses working together and in partnership with the police and other law enforcement agencies to tackle retail crime across their local areas.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, most retailers who adopt the civil recovery procedure normally employ specialist civil recovery companies to seek damages on their behalf, to meet the losses caused by individuals who steal from them. I understand that in addition to the actual cost of any goods stolen or damaged, retailers seek to recover the overall costs that they have incurred in dealing with the matter. The additional costs are usually claimed to cover the costs of general store security measures such as CCTV, security tagging and security staff, as well as any administrative costs incurred by the retailer.

In the great majority of cases, the value of the goods or cash allegedly stolen is relatively low, sometimes just a few pounds. However, the sum sought in damages can be substantially higher once additional costs are included. Such costs are often charged as a fixed sum of between £100 and £150, depending on the value of the goods or cash involved. I note that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the amount of £137. The practice adopted by most companies involved in the sector is to write to individuals demanding payment. Failure to pay is followed by a threat of a court action for unpaid damages and the subsequent use of debt collection agencies. Such individuals are advised that their details will be entered on a national database, which can be accessed by retailers, prospective employers and credit providers.

Let me be clear that the Government are entirely satisfied that retailers have a legal right to recover the value of any goods lost or destroyed as a result of an individual's actions. Defendants can go to their local CAB and receive advice about what to do with the claim. The Government accept that a retailer arguably has a legal right to recover any additional costs or losses directly caused as a result of dealing with a case. However, we appreciate that there is no statutory or other clear basis for setting the amounts of such costs or losses that can be recovered in an individual case. Therefore, the amount of money, if any, that a retailer can recover from an individual accused of low-level theft in respect of its wider costs is entirely a matter for the courts based on the circumstances and facts of the case.

I say "if any" because my officials have not yet been able to identify any cases in which the issue has been tested before the courts and a definitive judgment given. A specialist recovery company confirmed to Citizens Advice in 2010 that it had never issued a claim seeking recovery where an alleged shoplifter had failed to pay the sum requested. Therefore, that area of the law remains untested. CitA-the new name for Citizens Advice-has undertaken a lot of valuable work, for which we are grateful, to highlight what it believes are the relevant problems. I will refer to that valuable contribution later. However, given that some civil recovery is clearly entirely legitimate, we consider that the question deserving further examination involves the means used and the proportionality of losses recovered.

Simon Hughes: Has any work done by the Minister or his officials confirmed that the amounts sought in such cases have no relation to the costs incurred? People should be entitled to recover the £5 cost of a stolen item, but the £135 or £235 top-up fee does not appear to have any basis in reality.

Mr Djanogly: That would be a matter for the courts to decide, and as I have just tried to explain, there has not yet been a test case. A test case might be a good idea.

There is no clear basis for setting claims for additional costs at a specific level. Indeed, retailers can seek to recover such additional costs only to the extent that they can show that they have been incurred directly as a result of dealing with a case, so it is not at all clear how such costs could be set at standard levels. However, as I said, the point has yet to be tested fully in the courts.

As I said, Citizens Advice has raised a number of concerns about how civil recovery companies operate and has conducted valuable work on the matter, culminating in two reports. "Uncivil Recovery", which was published in December 2010, set out detailed case studies drawn from 300 CitA-reported cases in which individuals had been accused of shoplifting or employee theft and were then pursued for substantial sums of money as compensation for what was described as

"loss and damage caused by your wrongful actions."

I understand that in the vast majority of cases the police were not involved, nor were criminal charges brought. CitA suggested that it is unfair to use the civil courts in such circumstances, argued that the practice of civil recovery effectively relies on fear and ignorance of the law for its effectiveness and made a series of recommendations.

We believe that the recommendation that the law should be clarified to prevent any civil recovery unless there has been a criminal trial and conviction would result in undesirable additional pressure on the criminal justice system. As I have mentioned, the Government accept fully that some civil recovery is entirely legitimate. Accordingly, we consider that the question of the means used and the proportionality of losses recovered might deserve further examination. However, we accept that one important issue is what approach companies acting on behalf of retailers adopt when pursuing such cases.

In that context, I am pleased to be able to tell my right hon. Friend that the topic, and whether any guidance needs to be issued or other action taken, is being considered across a number of Departments, and good progress is being made. For instance, the Law Commission intends to seek views on the question in a paper soon to be issued on consumer redress for misleading or aggressive practices. The Law Commission project reviews the directive on unfair commercial practices implemented in the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trade Practices Regulations 2008 and asks whether consumers should have a right of redress of breaches of the regulations, and that includes the question whether civil recovery is a commercial practice within the meaning of the directive.

The issue is not beyond doubt, but on a broad interpretation of the meaning of a commercial practice, the directive could apply to civil recovery where it is used against shoplifters. That would not make civil recovery illegal, but specialist recovery companies would not be permitted to send misleading or aggressive letters. More generally, the Law Commission is also considering whether there should be a statutory right of redress for people to reclaim, along with moderate and appropriate damages for distress and inconvenience, any moneys that they might have paid as a result of a misleading or aggressive letter.

The Citizens Advice report implies that civil redress is sometimes uncalled for, but the Government do not support that position. The report is certainly useful in raising important issues, not least those that concern aspects of consumer protection, but I accept that some technical issues need to be resolved.

Simon Hughes: I see that the Minister is on his last page, so I will ask him one last question. A Law Commission report is imminent. Do the Government have a plan to bring together views across Departments and produce a coherent collective response later in this parliamentary Session? I am sure that it would be welcome in both Houses.

Mr Djanogly: I cannot guarantee the timing today, because it will need to be agreed among several Departments, but the issue will be considered on a cross-departmental basis, and we will come back with proposals.

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