Friday, July 24, 2009

Finders keepers, losers weepers? !

Man holding a £20 note

By Lucy Rodgers
BBC News

Who should legally keep the winnings from a lost lottery ticket - the woman who mislaid it, or the married couple who found it?

It is an age-old dilemma.

What should you do when you stumble across cash in the street - a £1 coin or even a £5, £10 or £50 note? And how about if you discover something worth hundreds or thousands of pounds, such as jewellery or a winning lottery ticket?

People are more likely to give back a wallet containing money if someone's cards are inside
Dr Natalie Gold

While some may hand lost property in to the authorities, many others seek justification in the playground chant "finders keepers, losers weepers".

Yet, although the adage is often quoted by those who claim rights over their discoveries, the recent case of Wiltshire couple Amanda and Michael Stacey shows it holds little sway in a court of law.

The husband and wife have been handed 11-month suspended sentences for cashing in a £30,000 lottery ticket found on a shop floor, and spending half of it. And on Friday they were ordered to repay the remaining £15,000, plus £111 in interest, to Dorothy McDonagh, who was able to prove she had bought the ticket.

At a hearing in April, defence lawyer Rob Ross told the court: "It is important for the public to know that 'Finders keepers, losers weepers' is not true and never was true."

So, why do we continue to take inspiration from the phrase, and is there ever legal justification for keeping what we find?

Elvis Presley
Finders keepers, losers weepers - the loser has to pay the score
Elvis Presley

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the saying "Finders keepers (losers weepers)" dates as far back as the early 19th century, recorded as "No halfers-findee keepee, lossee seekee".

And almost 150 years later, Elvis Presley put it to music in 1963.

"Finders keepers, losers weepers. The loser has to pay the score," he crooned.

It is because the adage is so widely known that people may decide to use it as a rule for behaviour, says Dr Natalie Gold, who specialises in moral psychology at the University of Edinburgh.

But, she argues, although it allows people to think they are not stealing, just because someone recalls the phrase, it doesn't mean they will act on it.

An individual's decision to claim what they find will be greatly influenced by whether they consider the item to belong to someone else.

"People are more likely to give back a wallet containing money if someone's cards are inside. If it's just the money they are more likely to keep it."

However, if finders want to abide by the law, they need to think carefully about who owns lost property - including cash, says Robert Chambers, professor of property law at University College London.

People scavenging cargo, 2007
Finders hoped to keep cargo washed up on Branscombe beach

While losers may no longer have physical possession of an item, they still retain legal entitlement to it.

Therefore, in England and Wales, as well as in most other countries across the world, the onus is on the finder to take what the law describes as "reasonable steps" to track down the loser.

"And that depends on where it has been found," says Professor Chambers. "In the airport you should go to the authorities, if it is in the street you should go to the police."

In the same way, those claiming ship-wrecked goods are obliged to notify the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's Receiver of Wrecks, and those finding buried treasure must notify the local coroner.

And in the case of winning lottery tickets, finders should advise organisers Camelot.

But what action is required often depends on what's found, says John Spencer, professor of law at the University of Cambridge.

"If you pick up a £1, you can keep it unless you saw someone drop it, as you would not be able to find the owner by taking reasonable steps.

Shopkeeper selling a lottery ticket
Make adequate steps to reunite ticket with original owner
Send ticket to Camelot, stating circumstances of the find
If no prize claim or lost ticket notice made within 180 days, Camelot can decide to pay finder
But if claimant fails to state ticket is lost property, and original owner disputes the claim, it may become a police matter
Source: Camelot

"But if you found four or five £20 notes in a gutter - as I once did - you probably will find the owner as they are likely to contact the police, as they did in my case."

Yet, despite these legal requirements, there are certain circumstances in which a finder can legally become a keeper.

For example, someone can retain something if it has been abandoned, says Professor Spencer.

"You are only guilty of theft if you appropriate the property of another. If someone has abandoned it, the property is yours," he says.

"For example, if I throw something away in the street and someone else picks up the litter, that is not theft."

Furthermore, a finder may eventually earn the right to keep discovered property if they take the correct steps to find whoever lost it, says Professor Chambers.

"If you find something in the street, the law says you have more right to it than everyone else - except the owner. If the true owner doesn't turn up, you can take ownership."

In this sense, he says, "finders keepers" does have some legal foundation, but only if "something has no owner anymore".

So rather than "finders keepers, losers weepers", a more legally accurate adage might be the rather less succinct "finders may become keepers if they try to find the owner, but losers still have the best claim unless they have abandoned the item".




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