There was a bemusing story in the newspapers recently about a wealthy Norwegian man who had forgotten a boat he had moored in a Swedish harbour. Although the owner was eventually discovered when a police appeal was mounted on Facebook, the case raises an interesting point about ownership of lost or forgotten property.
The old adage of “finders keepers, losers weepers” is probably engrained on most English peoples’ psyche from their playground years. Although the phrase has a nice ring to it, it is not in fact an accurate reflection of the legal position on lost or forgotten property.
So what should you do if you find something of value that appears lost or forgotten?
An Ancient Piece of Common Law on Found Personal Property
The main legal authority on lost or forgotten property is the historic case of Armory v Delamirie . In that case the claimant, a chimney sweep, found a ring setting with gems in it which he took to the defendant, a goldsmith, to have it valued. The jeweller’s apprentice removed the gems while weighing it before handing it back to the sweep without the stones. The sweep subsequently brought a legal claim against the goldsmith.
As the chimney sweep was not the original owner, the court had to decide whether he had any claim to the gems and whether or not the goldsmith may also have had a claim. The court considered that the legal title of the true owner was not relevant to who had the superior claim as both claims were merely possessory. It held that the claimant had the better right to possession and awarded him the maximum value of the jewel. In making its judgement the court stated:
“That the finder of a jewel, though he does not by such finding acquire an absolute property or ownership, yet he has such a property as will enable him to keep it against all but the rightful owner, and consequently may maintain trover.”
The finder of lost or forgotten personal property has a claim in possession to that property, enforceable against all but the true owner who retains the legal title and can still enforce it. In order to legitimately keep found property, the finder should take reasonable steps to find the rightful owner before relying on their possession of it.
In practical terms this might mean in the case of a one pound coin on a busy street for example that there is little one could reasonably do to find the true owner. In the case of the boat moored in the Swedish marina, apparently with the keys openly attached to a railing, hopping in a driving off would not pass muster. Informing the authorities such as the police would be a more sensible first step.
If property truly has been abandoned and reasonable steps are taken to find the true owner without success, only then may finders indeed become keepers.
For specialist advice contact Peter Gourri today by email PGourri@rollingsons.co.uk or telephone 0207 611 4848.