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  • Stuart McDonald

What is the difference between theft, burglary and robbery?

What is theft? What is the difference between theft and burglary? What is the difference between theft and robbery?

If I go into a shop, take a box of chocolates and conceal it in my jacket and then walk out without paying, most people will recognise that as “stealing” and hence, “theft”. If I break the window of a building, climb in and then steal a laptop computer, most people will know that is a “burglary”. If I go into a bank with a weapon and demand that the cashier hand over cash or they will be harmed, everyone will agree that is a “robbery.” But what do these terms actually mean?


As a very basic definition, a theft arises where a person who is acting dishonestly takes property belonging to another person. “Dishonesty,” put simply, means that the action, for example taking something from a shop without paying, would be seen by a reasonable person as dishonest.


If I enter a building or part of a building as a trespasser with the intention of stealing, or if having entered a building / part of a building as a trespasser I then steal something, that is a “burglary”. The key features are the entry into the building, the fact of being a trespasser and the intention to steal. (It can include also intentions to cause criminal damage or serious harm.)


When a person commits a theft and at the time of doing so uses or threatens to use physical force, that is a “robbery”. Therefore, a street “mugging” is a robbery but where property is taken from a pocket or bag without the victim’s knowledge, that is theft.

These examples are, of course, simplified and in real life cases can be so much more complicated. For instance, consider the following:

  • What is the position where a person switches the price label on an item with a lower priced item and then pays for it at the till?

  • What if the person passes a house where the window has been left open and just reaches in and take a wallet which is lying on the windowsill – is that a burglary even when they didn’t actually go into the building?

  • What if a person tells a bank cashier that they have a gun and will use it but in fact it’s a toy?

  • What if it’s just his fingers in his pocket, held to look like a gun?

The law on theft can be complex and sometimes not easy to understand. The examples mentioned above are real-life cases and the Courts have had to interpret what the law truly means

Legal disclaimer: Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice. The information contained herein is accurate at the date of publication but please note that the law is ever changing and evolving. If you require advice in relation to any matter raised in this article please contact a member of the team.


Let us take it from here

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