Lost property

It's not as easy as finders keepers. Here's the legal stuff you need to know if you stumble across lost property, stolen goods, or even treasure.

Purse on floor and person walking away

When can you keep it?

Lost property

If you find goods that appear to be lost, then you can keep the goods as long as:

  • You did not find the goods dishonestly or while trespassing
  • You take care of the goods – you will be liable for any damage caused to the goods while they are in your care
  • You did not find the goods on your employers’ property
  • The goods are lost, and not uncollected or abandoned, stolen or treasure
  • You have taken reasonable steps to find the owner of the goods
  • The goods were found not attached to anything on premises or land where the occupier does not exercise much control, for example, an air terminal lounge, public part of a shop, or recreation ground.

Goods handed over to the police

The usual police practice is that the finder can have the goods back and keep them if they are not claimed within six weeks. However, the police may want more time if there are special circumstances and they want to investigate. Once the property has been returned to the finder by the police, the original owner cannot usually then claim the goods.

Uncollected or abandoned goods

If you have uncollected or abandoned goods you have a duty to look after them, but cannot use them or treat them as your own. You will be liable for any damage caused to the goods while they are in your care. If you’ve made steps to find and contact the original owner and they fail to collect the goods within a reasonable period, you can sell them. However, you have to prove you’ve followed the correct procedure.

Stolen goods

When goods are stolen, the original owner retains their legal right of ownership over the goods. When stolen goods are found, a court can order the return of the goods or a compensation payment for the value of the article to be made to the original owner.

If someone receives stolen goods, even if they have paid a fair price and are unaware that the goods were stolen, the general rule is that the person with the goods does not usually get a legal right of ownership. The person with the goods must inform the owner and allow them to take them away, if they discover that they were stolen.

Finding treasure

Treasure is the property of the Crown. Anyone who finds treasure should report this directly to the coroner for the district where the object was found within 14 days of the find (or of first having reason to believe the object may be treasure). A finder who fails to report a discovery without a reasonable excuse will be committing a criminal offence.

If using a metal detector, you should follow the rules. You must get the landowner’s permission before searching on private land.

Sea and seashore

Property found in the sea or the seashore could be from a ship and is known technically as ‘wreck’. All wreck must be reported to the Receiver of Wreck.

Photo of purse by Shutterstock.

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By Tom Green

Updated on 29-Sep-2015