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When I first saw this sign which read "We participate in a Civil Debt Recovery scheme" on a Tesco supermarket shelf I paused and tried to figure out what it meant. My first feelings were trepidation and suspicion. Was it the velvet toilet paper manufacturer who participated in this scheme? Was it a scheme like replanting trees when you make toilet paper? The country is, after all, in a serious debt crisis. Maybe this was something to do with assisting with the debt. "Recovery" that sounds like a good thing. I mean you recover something that you want back like your health from an illness. "Civil" that's another nice word. "Civilised", "civilian", sort of benign and rather positive. "Debt"? Who's debt? So I asked a member of staff. He was mystified and called another member of staff. She was mystified too. These seemed like two likeable people working in a store. She took the sign from the shelf and said she would find out for me and collared a passing "plain clothed" member of staff posing as a casual rugby-shirted average shopper but with a sophisticated "Tesco" badge clipped to his belt. He didn't seem a very likeable chap. She handed him the sign and asked if he knew what it meant. He was not impressed by this enquiry and stated that it was a scheme by which Tesco would reclaim all expenses lost in cases of theft including the staff's time. I thanked him for the information, took the sign from him and, placing it in my shopping trolley, I asked, slightly tongue in cheek, if it would be theft if I walked out of the store with the sign. With no sense of humour he said "Yes". After a short exchange of views I explained exactly what I wanted to do with the sign (put it on the internet and explain to Tesco customers what it meant) he reluctantly agreed to let me have it.
So what does it really mean? As it turns out it is a rather sordid, underhand and not very friendly scheme which is becoming more popular with retailers. Some claim it is the retailers taking the law into their own hands because they are not satisfied with the otherwise due legal process of the police, courts and the judicial system. There have been hundreds, probably thousands, of enquiries at the Citizen's Advice Bureaux (CAB) relating to this issue. Well over half a million people have been presented with demands for money with no court case or proven guilt. The CAB published a report on 9 Dec 2009 (see CAB article Uncivil Recovery) making serious criticisms of the system and labelling it an alternative to the criminal justice system. It is also known by another double speak term "Retail Loss Prevention" or RLP.
From the Guardian article: Civil recovery schemes: for or against?: "But among the more than 10,000 Citizens Advice-handled cases, there is one common feature: if the sum demanded is not paid, the threatened court action does not materialise. And the most prolific agent – Retail Loss Prevention (RLP) – has conceded that it has never successfully litigated a contested court claim in respect of an unpaid demand. This, together with formal legal advice that there is no obvious legal authority for most such demands, suggests that the practice of threatened civil recovery relies on fear and/or shame, and ignorance of the law, for its effectiveness."
IN SHORT: DO NOT PAY THESE MAFIA STYLE BLACKMAIL THREATS! Don't allow yourself to be bullied, intimidated, or frightened into paying CIVIL DEBT RECOVERY demands. The Citizens Advice Bureau has recommended that many organisations including the Police and the Office of Fair Trading review their relationship with these companies.
There is a problem with this kind of behaviour by the large retail organisations. It is like so many things where a simple presumed case is used to justify a policy. Assuming you or I were robbed we would want the thief to give back what they took and to compensate us for all losses incurred as a result of their interference. That seems reasonable enough. But that is why we have the due process of the law. It is precisely to collectively organise ourselves to enforce that kind of protection. The idea is not to assume guilt and to act on that presumption. The idea of the British judicial system is to ensure that all parties involved get a fair chance to present their case. (Not that it seems to work so well but that's another story.) For the large retailers like Tesco to effectively play judge and jury and to assault victims with official documents ordering the payment of costs under threat of summons and prosecution is out of order. Really! It is out of order. The correct order of things is to go through the judicial system. If Tesco or whoever have a valid and supportable case the courts will support them. If they have reasonable claims against the alleged criminal they will find the justice that the rest of us get through the legal mechanism. If they are unsatisfied with the law then they should deal with that through the proper channels too.
There was a case of a lady who's one year old child took a fruit juice from a shelf in Boots whilst she wasn't looking (see the BBC's 'Caught in the act?' article). As she left the store she was accused of theft. As far as I understand it they got their fruit juice back. Neither the lady nor the child was reported for, or charged with, theft. But some time later the lady received a demand from a company calling themselves 'Retail Loss Prevention' for £87.50. This was an 'official' demand and being a law abiding citizen it caused the lady a deal of distress. Who will compensate her for lost time opening and reading the letter, worrying, making an appointment at the local CAB and travelling to the arranged meeting and the time involved? Who will compensate the child for a distressed mother? It all gets a little impractical and frankly ridiculous. The trick is not to be unreasonable in the first place.
Much as I understand the presented grievance of the retailers the fact remains that they must be fair, transparent and honest in their dealings with the public if they are to have any justified hope of the same being reciprocated. We already know of too many scams, deceptions and illegal activities by the large supermarkets and they must not be allowed to continue their unfair dealings with the population that they are supposed to serve. If the law is not fairly protecting their legitimate rights then they must address this through the proper channels. To invent some legalese vigilante scheme to profit from ordinary citizens under the guise of the law and justice is grasping, underhand and unacceptable.
It's called bullying in the playground! So STOP IT you naughty people.
The more I read around the subject the clearer it becomes that the un-Civil Debt Recovery scheme is a direct evolution of those bullies in the school playground who would utilise threats of reporting misdemeanours as a way of getting control over their victims. It is a vice and an intolerable one in a civilised society. Tesco, Boots, Asda, Debenhams and others are playing the "big boys" and threatening to take legal action against people unless they submit to their implied more lenient action. Of course what they should do is take the correct legal action. It is dangerously abusive to be offering people their own brand of "justice" whilst suggesting the legitimate "legal system" would be more punitive. If the retailers' actions are not severely redressed and curtailed by the relevant authorities and organisations and this behaviour is allowed to continue it will be indicative of the rot in our culture and part of the insidious corruption that is at the heart of the collapse of our civilisation. Just take it a few years down the line when times are getting harder and there is possibly more petty theft. There will not be the required evolution in the law and the legal system will simply be incapable of handling the thefts. This will simply justify the behaviour of the large corporations in their "self-service" justice. "Previous Convictions" will degenerate into "You're on our database" and the whole rule of (retail) law will fall into the hands of the supermarkets who justify their "self protection" by their need to survive. Remember, they have the money, the resources, the power and the lawyers to do this. Who will defend the shoppers or even the poor?
And as a final note: Who is capable of stopping the large retailers from their illegal and degenerative behaviour? Individuals do not have the resources. If this situation is allowed to decline out of the due legal process there will be little hope of getting the fair balance back short of revolution. Do I start writing letters demanding payment from supermarkets for stocking a disproportionate amount of their own produce on their shelves? Do I demand money from them for their conspiratorial creation of consortiums? Do I demand personal recompense for the blatant lies on the products they sell? How about the deceptive practice of labelling items "Special Price" when the only thing special is that it is more than the normal price? What about the deliberate muddling of base units when they pretend to be trying to help by comparing unit price? What about products that break the law by advertising money off when the product has never been available at the original price? Do I bill them for the time it takes me to unravel their obfuscation. Should I suggest they pay me under threat of legal action and more severe financial penalties? Well of course it wouldn't work. But remember NOT ONE CASE of their Civil Debt Recovery has been successfully pursued in the courts!