Header image source: Matt Brown. Unedited (CC by 2.0)

What do the law and the police really say about lost property in the United Kingdom?

There is a lot of confusion surrounding what you should do with lost property. The position of the government and the police in regards to lost property in England and Wales is confusing and uncertain. The goalposts have shifted again in recent months. Officially, the police are no longer taking responsibility for the handing-in and recording of missing valuables.

However,  businesses must still ensure that they take ‘reasonable’ steps when something is found on their property. However, what constitutes reasonable? Plus, what measures must these businesses take to adhere to the law?

We have explored the legal complexities and answered the most common questions around lost property laws in the UK.

A brief history of lost property laws in the UK

There is no doubt that humans have been losing things ever since our cave-dwelling ancestors first walked the earth. However, lost property in the UK was not a common problem until the 18th century. Huge growth in consumerism and the use of public transport led to many more items getting mislaid. In response, the first public LPO’s (Lost Property Offices) were set up. However, these were often criminal enterprises. These organisations would hold people’s missing items for ransom, using newspaper advertisements to advertise found items and claim funds.

After a tumultuous period of confusion, The Metropolitan Police opened a ‘Central Repository for Lost Things’ in 1869. Consolidating lost property across London was seen as a pragmatic step to reduce loss rates and affiliated criminal activity. This eventually moved under the remit of TFL, and in 1933 they opened a purpose-built location lost property office at 200 Baker Street. This was to handle the ever-increasing volumes of lost property across London’s transport networks. Subsequently, this has now moved to a new home in South Kensington.

200 Baker Street TfL lost property office on NotLost lost property laws blog
TFL’s Lost Property Office. Source: Matt Brown

Do the police take lost property?

For 86 years, the police managed lost property across the UK. However, from February 1st 2019, following a national government review and consultation with 29 forces across the country, this all changed. With an eye on cost saving and efficiency, police forces across the UK stopped processing most lost property items and enquiries. The lost property law changed. 

However, the police will still accept some specific items.

They will accept: firearms, ammunition, items suspected to have been involved in a crime and cash.

Furthermore, they will accept items containing personal data like identifiable wallets or personal documents.

However, they will not take items such as bicycles, clothing, keys, jewellery or anything unidentifiable. A full list of lost property that the police will and will not accept can be found here.


If I find something can I keep it?

This is where it gets a little more complicated. The law states a ‘reasonable attempt’ must be made to return lost property to the owner. However, what is considered ‘reasonable’ is very subjective.

If you find something, here’s what you should do:

1) Firstly, you should hand it in to the venue or transport provider where you found it.

2) Or, if you find something in a public place (and it’s not an item accepted by the police) then you must make a reasonable attempt to return it. This might involve: posting details on social media pages or putting up a notice in a local shop or business.

If you have followed all of the above steps, the police have stated that you can then keep the property.

How long until you can claim lost property?

If you find something and hand it in at the venue it was lost, some businesses will operate a ‘return-to-finder’ policy. This is a way of encouraging people to be honest. You should check with the venue  to see whether this is available and when you can claim items. This time period can range from a month to a year. Of course, there is no legal requirement to offer this service.

What should I do with lost property found on my premises?

Official advice for businesses remains the same. Universities, shopping centres or any other venue where items are regularly lost, should hold on to the property themselves. If somebody has lost something at a shopping centre for example, they are more likely to enquire directly at the shopping centre than approach a local police station.

The law states that you must take a series of ‘reasonable’ steps to register, secure, and respond to enquiries related to that item. This could involve using a digital lost property system to capture important details. Furthermore, an online form for people to fill out and report an item as lost would be beneficial. 

How long do I legally have to hold someone’s property?

Unsurprisingly, the law states to be ‘reasonable’. One month is commonplace. However, many businesses with huge volumes will only keep items for 14 or 7 days. Providing they can prove that they have taken the aforementioned reasonable steps, then this is deemed acceptable.

Different timings for the transport industry 

Despite this, the rules are different in the transport industry. Regulations state that items must be kept for a period of at least 3 months. TfL are often viewed as a benchmark for this. Their full lost property policy can be found here.

Lost property pile of keys from venue lost property laws
Lost Keys. Source: Andreas Wieser.

In conclusion

Whilst the police position around lost property laws are somewhat hazy, individuals and businesses who find something must be seen to have taken ‘reasonable’ measures. Therefore, we have outlined items that are still accepted by police forces and, on the other hand, some lost property that is no longer accepted. For those items not accepted, ensure they are handed into local venues or posted on social media. Make sure you’re taking reasonable steps to return lost property to owners, the responsible way.

If you are a venue or location that handles a lot of lost property, you could benefit from a digital lost property software. This will ensure you are complying with the law and are able to return more lost items back to owners at your organisation! Find out more about NotLost on our Solutions page. Follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter to stay up to date with all things lost property.