Is it an offence to retain post addressed to another without opening it?

19 August 2020

Not reviewed after the date of publication

Question: 

Is an offence committed when a person intentionally retains post addressed to another without opening it thereby delaying its delivery to the intended recipient?

We have considered section 84 of the Postal Services Act 2000, however we are unsure of the meaning of 'in the course of their transmission by post', could it be considered theft?

Answer:

Section 84 of the Postal Services Act 2000 states:

84(1) A person commits an offence if, without reasonable excuse, he -

(a) Intentionally delays or opens a postal packet in the course of its transmission by post, or
(b) intentionally opens a mail-bag.

Where the post has not been opened but deliberately retained, the most likely offence to have been committed under the Postal Services Act 2000 would be that of 'delaying a postal packet in the course of its transmission by post' contrary to section 84(1).

'Postal packet - in course of transmission' is defined in section 125 of that Act as being taken to mean in the 'course of transmission by post from the time of its being delivered to any post office or post office letter box to the time of its being delivered to the addressee'. There is no further clarification provided upon the meaning 'delivered to the addressee' and therefore it is open to interpretation as to whether this is satisfied by delivery to an address or to the individual in question. This would therefore ultimately be a matter for the CPS and courts to decide as to whether the letter would still be deemed to be in transmission in the scenario you describe.

There is a similar offence contrary to section 3(1) of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (See H18906) which states that an offence is committed when a communication has been intercepted in the course of its transmission by means of a public postal service. Section 4 of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 applies the section 125 of the Postal Services Act 2000 meaning to the section 3 offence. Therefore, the same issue arises here with the interpretation of in the 'course of transmission', and this would again be for the CPS and courts to decide. However, we would note that this offence is triable either-way and therefore has more serious sentencing implications.

A case of interest is R v Edmondson and others 2013 . In this case the message was received at the address but hadn't reached the addressee. In this case, it was established that a voicemail message received and stored by the intended recipient was still 'in the course of transmission'.

We do not believe that the offence of theft is applicable in the circumstances you describe unless dishonesty can be proven at the time of appropriation of the post. This may be difficult to establish on the facts provided. There is a specific offence which relates to the theft of mail within the UK, under section 14 of the Theft Act 1968, which implies that Parliament intended this offence to be utilised when the facts of the matter involve mail – rather than the section 1 theft offence. However, this offence would still require the elements of theft as detailed in the section 1 offence to be satisfied.

We would advise that CPS be consulted to determine which offence is the most relevant on the full facts of your case.

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