Theft is defined by section 1 of the Theft Act 1968 as the dishonest appropriation of property belonging to another with the intention to permanently deprive the other of it.

The principal aim of theft is to acquire property. Theft includes:

  • stealing from a person such as pick pocketing
  • stealing from a dwelling
  • stealing in breach of trust, for example from an employer
  • stealing from a motor vehicle
  • stealing metal cables from a railway

Shoplifting is a form of theft but there are some differences in how it is prosecuted and sentenced.

What is the difference between theft, burglary and robbery?

The terms theft, burglary and robbery are often used interchangeably – particularly because people tend to commit these offences for very similar reasons. However, there are clear differences between them:

  • theft means taking someone’s property but without the use of force
  • burglary means illegally entering a property to steal something from it
  • robbery means stealing from a person using force (or threatening to use force)

Read our blog to find out more about the difference between these offences.

What is the difference between theft and fraud?

There is often an overlap between theft and fraud because fraud may include taking someone’s property or money by deceiving them. Identity theft and other offences that might be described as cybercrime will generally be covered by the Fraud Act 2006. Some conduct may amount to offences under both acts.

How is a person found guilty of theft?

For someone to be found guilty of general theft, there must be evidence of all the following:

  • appropriation
  • of property
  • belonging to another
  • dishonestly
  • with intention to permanently deprive

Appropriation means assuming the rights of a legal owner of the property without consent, for example taking a car from someone and driving it without permission. Appropriation also includes instances where the property had initially been obtained with permission but the person had no intention of returning it, for example failing to return a car after a test drive.

Property includes money and personal property.

Property belonging to another is property in the possession or control of another person, including where the property is on loan from the legal owner and then stolen.

Dishonestly means the person would have known that “reasonable and honest people” would regard the conduct as dishonest. If a person can show they had genuine belief they had the legal right to take the property they cannot be found guilty.

Intention to permanently deprive means treating the property as your own regardless of the rights of the owner.


Parliament sets the maximum (and sometimes minimum) penalty for any offence. When deciding the appropriate sentence, the court must follow any relevant sentencing guidelines, unless it is not in the interests of justice to do so.

What is the maximum sentence for theft?

The maximum sentence for theft is seven years’ custody.

Find out more about the different types of sentence the courts can impose.

How is the sentence worked out?

Sentences are calculated by an assessment of culpability and harm, as well as considering any aggravating or mitigating factors.

Culpability is assessed by considering things such as how much planning went into the theft and the role played by the offender.

Harm is assessed by the financial loss resulting from the theft and any additional harm suffered by the victim or anyone else, for example injury or emotional distress.

Aggravating factors may increase the severity of the sentence. Examples include where the offender:

  • has previous criminal convictions
  • stole goods to order
  • carried out the offending over a long period of time

Mitigating factors may reduce the severity of the sentence. Examples include where the offender:

  • has no previous convictions
  • has shown remorse and/or is of good character
  • has a serious medical condition
  • is young or lacks maturity
  • has a mental disorder or learning disability
  • is the sole or primary carer for dependent relatives
  • can demonstrate they have taken steps to address addiction or offending behaviour

If the defendant pleads guilty, they will also receive a reduced sentence.

See the sentencing guideline to find out more about how sentences for theft are worked out.

Useful information


Are judges out of touch?
All judges face the realities of crime in society every day, with all types of offenders coming before them from all sections of the community. Judges and the public are more in tune than many people think – when people are asked to sentence actual cases, the sentences chosen  are pretty similar to those that judges pick. You can see how you compare with judges by trying out You be the Judge – listen to the facts of the case and pass your own judgement.

The information on this page is not a complete legal analysis of the offences and is not a substitute for legal advice. The law will be different in Scotland and Northern Ireland.