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A new online initiative designed to crack down on shoplifters could be set to rebound badly on the retail chain pioneering it - and police advice on the law in matters of surveillance may yet again prove to be more optimistic than accurate.

Liverpool-based operator TJ Morris Ltd, better known on the High St as Home Bargains, is fed up with shoplifters. So it has set up an innovative new scheme which involves publishing on the net CCTV pictures of individuals suspected of shoplifting.

As the company explains on its site: "Below are a series of images of suspected shoplifters in Home Bargains stores.

"We are keen to identify them and pass their details onto the police. We are offering a reward of up to £500 per instance, for information leading to the arrest and successful prosecution for shoplifting."

This action was justified by Home Bargains operations director Joe Morris in a recent interview in The Grocer magazine, reported in the Telegraph. He said: "We want to show that we won't just roll over if people come to our stores to commit a crime. We will do, and are doing, as much as we can to prevent it.

"Retail shrinkage is a big issue and we're trying to address it as efficiently as we can. We have spent a lot of money on CCTV and this will hopefully make those tempted to shoplift think again.

"We are a discount retailer and are only successful by keeping our costs under control."

A cautionary note is supplied by David Hooper, a Partner at Reynolds Porter Chamberlain and a Specialist in Libel Law. He said: "If police put up a wanted poster, they have what is known as 'qualified privilege' and are protected in law.

"That is not the case with private individuals or businesses, who would have to be very sure they could justify their actions. If challenged, they would have to prove reasonable and objective grounds to suspect somebody of having shoplifted.

"If they got it wrong, they could open themselves to a libel action."

This is in contrast to the view expressed by Mr Morris, who provided an unusual inversion of the doctrine of innocent until proven guilty, stating: "If they believe they are innocent, we will be happy to go through the evidence with them."

Other lawyers raise privacy as a possible issue, and a grounds for challenging the posting of such pictures. There is also, potentially, a question mark over liability should any individual be subject to vigilante action as a result of such pictures being published.

We spoke with a spokeswoman for TJ Morris Ltd. She stated that before going ahead with this initiative, the company had spoken to local police, who said they had no concerns. She was, however, unable to confirm whether the company had taken specific legal advice on the matter.

Regular readers should by now be aware of the dangers of such an approach. When it comes to technology and surveillance, police advice has on a number of occasions - involving ID scanners, CCTV in pubs, etc - been later ruled to have missed the point entirely and possibly strayed into unlawful territory. ®

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