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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."

'Pay the score'

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."

Whisky galore

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 coin, 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 any more".

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".

Below is a selection of your comments.

The ticket only became valuable AFTER the lottery draw. If the set of numbers was so important, why did the lady not buy another ticket? I think that after she found out the ticket was lost, she did not really give it a second thought UNTIL she found out it was a winning ticket. The married couple should keep the lot.
Heero, Bristol

Over 20 years when my junior school year was on a school trip to the Isle of Wight, a boy found a £50 note. To us, that was a fortune. He gave it to our teacher, and the teacher asked us to vote: hand it in to the police or buy ice-creams for everyone. Every single child voted to hand it in to the police. We were a mixed bunch of 10 and 11 year olds from south London and we all knew what seemed the right thing to do. What would current school kids think was the right thing to do?
J Helps, Oxford

I once found a lottery ticket in a car park on a Saturday afternoon. I kept it until after the draw. Had it been a big winner, then I would have reported it to Camelot. If it had won a tenner, I may have donated it to charity; I wouldn't have kept it. However it won nothing, so I threw it away.
Caroline Brown, Rochester

Sometimes you hear of people finding a substantial amount of money then doing the right thing and handing it in only to receive a paltry reward for doing so, like a couple of pounds or a bunch of flowers. On that basis I will always be reluctant to hand anything in because far too many people are ungrateful these days. These people lost the money through their own carelessness should be grateful to get any of it back in my opinion.
Tony, Cheltenham, England

I once found a note in the street, then another and another, it became a trail of notes. Then I saw the lady from whose handbag the notes were falling. Her grateful thanks was reward enough. But I am still troubled when on one occasion I failed to hand money I found in a telephone box, to the police. I wrongly judged that no-one would bother to go to the police to see if it had been handed in.
Shafquat Rajah, London, UK

My bag, with driver's licence, wallet (cards & cash), iPod and other stuff fell off the back of my motorbike near Surrey Quays in SE London. When I arrived at the police station in Stoke Newington to report it, a young guy was handing in a purse that he had found in the supermarket next door - again chock full of cards and cash. Made me feel very hopeful that I'd get my bag back - lo and behold, I got a call from the police within hours of reporting it and picked my bag up the next day. Everything was still in it. Really, really wanted to say thanks but the person who handed it in didn't leave a name or address. If you're reading this, thanks!
Paul, London

The lottery ticket belongs to the original owner, whether it has a prize or not. If you find car keys on the floor does the car belong to you as well? Finders keepers... I don't think so.
Makbul Patel, Bolton, UK

Last year my teenage daughter lost her new phone in a park. I went back the next day but couldn't find it so I texted the phone with my details and was delighted to get a reply from someone who found it. He was an off-duty postman who had gone to the trouble of borrowing a charger, charging it up and then replying to my text message. We were so pleased that I got him a bottle of wine to thank him. It restored my faith in human nature and my daughter did not have to feel so desolated at having lost contact with the world.
Mick, Derby

When I was seven I found a 10 shilling note in the street. I didn't even tell my mum, but took it straight it to the police station. In 1945 10 shillings was a fortune to a little girl but more so to a housewife who may have lost it. Six months later, a policeman came to my house and asked to speak to me. My mum wondered what on earth I had been up to, as the episode of finding the money had never been mentioned. Well, no-one had collected the note and it was given to me. I never felt such a thrill.
Namhuga, Kirkcaldy, Scotland

I was brought up to understand that, if I kept an object or money I'd found without trying to find the owner, I would be stealing. I can't understand why there is a such confusion over who keeps the remaining winnings from the lottery ticket. Morally and legally, the married couple should have handed it straight back to the owner of the ticket - and they should be made to pay back what they've already spent, too.
Julie, UK

The article here confuses two different legal regimes: (i) discussed by Professor Chamber - the private law rules about who owns property and when someone can be sued for retaining the property of another; (ii) the criminal law rules (discussed by Professor Spencer) about when someone commits the offence of theft by finding property. The two do not necessarily bear any relation to each other or apply in the same way. The English courts have largely separated the private law of property rights and their acquisition from the criminal law of theft.
John Scott, London

My dad told me he got a police caution for taking something from a skip; apparently once it's in a skip it becomes the property of the waste collection company, even though neither the person who threw it away nor the refuse collectors want to keep it.
Sarah, Norwich

I think they should be allowed to keep it all. People should be more careful of their possessions.
Bob, UK

Was the lottery ticket a winning ticket when it was lost? It only became worth £30,000 when it was presented; if the person who lost it had bought another with the same numbers they would have shared the prize, and if it had never been claimed no-one would be worse off. So it wasn't really theft, was it?
Justin Ward, London, UK

A couple of weeks ago a found a wallet with cards and £200. I found the owner on Facebook and get in touch with them to arrange him to pick it up. He was extremely grateful and gave me £40 in return. It was a nice gesture and I felt really well that I did something good. It was a great feeling, and I recommend it to all finders.
Peter, London

If I lost money even a few hundred quid I would not bother to go to the police (as I have in the past) now as it won't get handed in. Therefore conversely I would not hand in the money if I found it. Like Dr Natalie Gold said, if it was in a wallet with identity then I would not hesitate to hand it in. Common sense applies here and not the law (which is devoid of common sense).
Marcus, Manchester

Anybody who buys a paper lottery ticket and doesn't put their details in the space provided on the back is a little bit silly. It's only 14/1 that it will win anything, and 14m/1 that you'll hit the jackpot, but to use another old adage it's "better safe than sorry". I personally don't recall having found anything more than a £5 note, and yes I kept it but only because there was no real prospect of finding the loser. I have however seen people drop cash, especially by cashpoints, and have always instantly brought it to their attention. Ultimately your moral compass must guide you - if I found a winning lottery ticket, no matter what the size of the prize, I couldn't in good conscience keep it for myself.
Duncan Paine, Cheshire, UK

A few friends and I found a wallet when we were about seven. After a couple of older lads said we should keep it (it had £50 in it but no ID; this was in 1987) we decided to hand it in to the police. After a few days we had a call to go to the station where we met with the owner who was very pleased to have his property back. He gave us £5 for returning it (in those days and at that age we were rich). I'll always hand in lost property now and I hope that if I lose something someone else will (not that this happened when my £400 phone fell out of its pouch).
Dan, Rhyl, Wales

Finders keepers losers weepers was a playground chant when I was at school. I never would have believed it applied to the real world, and it is revealing that people in Britain think a childish chant should shield them from what they must really know to be theft.
Hussein Owaiht, Metz, France

Honesty does pay. A friend of mine found what he thought was a cheap flashy bracelet lying in the gutter, but his wife found a hallmark inside it. They handed it in to the police but nobody claimed it, and after the set period of time laid down in law, they became the legal owners of what turned out to be a valuable piece of designer jewellery worth many thousands.
Angie, London UK

My husband found a £50 note in the street a couple of months ago. We contacted our local police in the only way we could (e-mail through their website - we don't have a local police station). They didn't get back to us at all. We therefore believe the money is legitimately ours - we have taken the only reasonable steps we can to find the owner (if we put up a notice, then all and sundry will claim that it is theirs).
Jo, Bristol

Yesterday I had a phone-call from a couple who found my 11-yr-old daughter's mobile (she's away with her aunt). They are putting it in a envelope an sending it to us, they even tried to see whether they were driving past where she is staying in order to drop it off. Honesty. Thank you. Finders keepers? Just theft.
Dominic, Teddington, UK

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