11.3.2.2 Robbery: force or fear of force

On 18 February 2021, the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment in R v Martins [2021] EWCA Crim 223.

The appellant and his co-accused were charged with robbery, contrary to s 8 of the Theft Act (TA) 1968, having been alleged to have stolen keys and a smartphone from the victim by use of force. In particular, the victim alleged that the appellant had taken the keys and phone from his hands, the co-accused later pushing the victim, and then the appellant caused the victim to fall and suffer a broken leg. The appellant claimed that he did not steal the phone or keys; it was his co-accused that stole such property. 

At trial, defence counsel for the appellant and his co-accused made submissions of no case to answer against the prosecution’s case. Their submissions were that force had not been used ‘in order to steal’ – on account of the time difference between the taking of the keys/phone and the force applied. The learned Recorder accepted this submission, identifying to the Crown that he would not permit the Crown to present its case on the basis that the theft involved a continuing act and that force was applied at some point during that continuing act. In response, the prosecution sought to change the basis upon which the charge was brought: instead of arguing that there was a continuing act, the prosecution would bring the charge ‘on the basis that [the initial taking of the keys and phone] did constitute some sort of force by taking it from his hands’.

Defence counsel objected to this change of course on account that: (i) her case had been presented on the basis of a continuing act; and (ii) that there remained insufficient evidence to prove that force had been applied when the keys and phone were snatched. The learned Recorder found no favour with the first submission, ruling that the victim could be further cross-examined if necessary. In respect of the second submission, the learned Recorder ruled (at [9]):

It seems to me, here, that it would be open to the jury to find that the use of the word ‘snatch’, bearing in mind the items involved are a mobile phone and a set of keys, each being held in one or other of the hands of the victim – it would be open to the jury to find on the evidence that force was used to the person, and I decline the submission.

The appellant was subsequently convicted of robbery; his co-accused was acquitted.

On appeal, the appellant alleged that there was no evidence that force had been applied to the victim when the keys and phone were taken from his hands. The appellant had a particular issue with the victim’s use of the word ‘snatching’ in his evidence and alleged that the mere word ‘snatching’ was not sufficient to convert a theft into a robbery. The appellant alleged that there was no evidence to demonstrate how the victim was holding the property in question, and how it was taken from him: it was inappropriate, therefore, for the jury to speculate how the property came to be removed from his hands.

Counsel for the respondent, on the other hand, submitted that the learned Recorder was correct in his conclusion. The respondent submitted that ‘as a matter of logic and common-sense’ there was sufficient evidence for the jury to find that force was applied given ‘the nature, size and shape of the mobile phone and a bunch of keys’ (at [13]).

Lord Justice Holroyde provided the sole and unanimous judgment of the Court of Appeal. His Lordship took the opportunity, between [15]-[19], to examine the various authorities submitted to the Court as part of the appeal. His Lordship first noted that no definition exists of ‘uses force on any person’ in s 8 of the TA 1968. His Lordship then proceeded to discuss such cases as P v DPP (cited in Martins as DPP v RP, GP and RW) [2012] EWHC 1657 (Admin), [2013] 1 WLR 2337, R v Dawson and James (1977) 64 Cr App R 170 and R v Clouden [1987] Crim LR 56. In summary, his Lordship identified that it will be for the judge in all cases to identify whether the evidence, taken at its highest, is such that a jury could properly find that the defendant had used force on the victim. The Court ruled (at [21]):

On the evidence as it stood at the conclusion of the prosecution case, although not at that point a strong case of robbery, it was in our view properly open to a jury to find that Mr Dewan, when carrying his phone and keys, was gripping them so that they would not fall or slip from his hands, that his description of the appellant ‘grabbing’ or ‘snatching’ the items connoted that the appellant had pulled the items free from that grip and that the action of pulling the items from his grasp amounted to the use of force on Mr Dewan.  

The jury were thus permitted to infer that force had been applied to the victim and that a robbery took place. As a result, the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal, finding the conviction to be safe (at [23]).

Comment

Martins is a helpful reminder that it is for the trial judge to assess whether there is sufficient evidence to prove that force has been used which can be left to the jury. If the judge is satisfied of this, the decision is one of fact for the jury. Martins confirms that the use of a word such as ‘snatch’ or ‘grab’ ‘will not necessarily and in all circumstances connote the use of force of any person’. (at [21]) Martins also clarifies that the jury are capable of drawing appropriate inferences from the facts to establish whether force has been applied in the circumstances. In totality, whether force is applied depends on the circumstances of the case, and this is a matter of fact to be determined by the jury.

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