Finder’s Keepers: What Does the Law Say?

Finder’s law concerns personal property rights. Generally, unless it’s stolen, you own property that you possess. But the questions in finder’s law are who owns lost or abandoned property? And moreover, how do you tell the difference?

Table of Contents

Lost or Abandoned?

Courts try to determine the owner’s intention. Depending on circumstances, if no one comes forward to claim the property, it’s typically considered abandoned.

Read about how abandoning a house affects ownership of real property in How Squatting Laws Allowed A Property Developer To Occupy An Abandoned House for 20 years – And Then Successfully Claim Ownership.

Did You Try to Find the True Owner?

Property cannot be ‘abandoned’ unless the true owner has a chance to claim their property. This means you need to make a reasonable effort to find the true owner, otherwise that’s theft.

Armory v Delamirie

In the 1700s, a chimney-sweeper’s boy found a jewel and took it to a goldsmith to find out what it was. After the boy refused the goldsmith’s offer to buy it, the goldsmith kept the jewel. Ultimately, the Court ruled that the boy had better rights to the jewel than the goldsmith.

A finder doesn’t have the best right to property – only the true owner does – but they have the right to keep it against anyone except the rightful owner.

Where Did You Find It?

The location of the found property is important. In public spaces, the finder has the best rights outside of the true owner. The law is much more complex in quasi-public or private spaces, which two American cases highlight:

  • Bridges v Hawkesworth: inviting the public into a shop meant a customer had better rights to a package full of banknotes on the floor; however
  • Silcott v Louisville Trust: a bank owner had better rights to a bond found on the floor in a safety vault department.

Essentially, your rights depend on how exclusive the area is, though this is difficult to determine. A property lawyer is essential for these reasons.

Parker v British Airways Board

A passenger in an executive airline lounge found a gold bracelet. They handed in the bracelet staff and asked to be contacted if the owner couldn’t be found. Eventually, the airline sold the bracelet and the passenger sued.

The Court held that the airline didn’t show an intention to control everything in the lounge, which meant that the passenger had better rights to the bracelet than the airline. In effect, the airline was exclusive to executive members, but not enough to show an intention to control.

What then happens when personal and private property rights conflict?

Private Property

You usually won’t need to show that you own anything on your private property. Generally, you have the right to everything attached to or under your land, unless someone has a better title.

Chairman, National Crime Authority v Flack

Mrs Flack rented a home and, soon after, police raided the house, suspecting her son possessed illicit drugs. Police confiscated a suitcase hidden in a cupboard containing half a million dollars.

No evidence linked the suitcase to a crime, so Mrs Flack sued to get it back. You show an intention to control everything in a location if you have exclusive possession. As a result, the Court awarded Mrs Flack title over the suitcase and money.

Final Thoughts

You have rights to property as long as you try to find the true owner. These rights aren’t as good as the true owner’s in most circumstances and depends on the location you find the property in.

You should note exceptions and grey areas in this law that create a range of complications. For example, the Crown has property rights to:

  • untouched funds in a bank account
    after seven years;
  • properties of the deceased without wills; and
  • property rights of people who commit certain crimes.

On the other hand, a private property owner is presumed to have rights over anything on their land. This right, along with finder’s law, reflects the importance of private property in most societies. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that no one can have their property ‘arbitrarily deprived’.

How then does the law of property apply to groups of people with different conceptions of ‘property’, such as all land of a country being more closely related to public property?

The law in this area is important to consider.

Unsure where to start? Contact a LawPath consultant on 1800 529 728 to learn more about customising legal documents and obtaining a fixed-fee quote from  Australia’s largest legal marketplace.

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