Q830: I am separating from my spouse/partner and there is a dispute as to who owns the car.
In situations of this nature one person may have bought the vehicle, whilst the other may be shown as the registered keeper. This may give rise to a situation in which one person requires the other to return the vehicle and if they don't the person may allege they have stolen it. If this situation arises there are a number of points that you need to bear in mind.
Theft – in relation to theft, it is an offence for a person to dishonestly appropriate property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it. It is not dishonest if a person has a genuine belief (the belief is a subjective test) that:
a. he/she had a legal right to the property, whether a legal right exists or not is not the issue, or
b. the other person would consent if he knew of the taking and the circumstances of it, or
c. the owner could not be traced by taking reasonable steps, (a matter for a court to decide).
However, the vast majority of these cases are not theft. They are
civil disputes and for this reason we would initially suggest that you speak to
a solicitor or someone from the Citizens Advice Bureau via the link below:
If they advise you to report the matter to the police, you can do so via the non-emergency 101 number.
Ownership of vehicle – whether a person is the owner of a vehicle is a question of fact for a court to decide. Relevant facts are the way the person treats/uses the vehicle, whether they have insurance for it and whether they have spent money on its purchase/upkeep etc. In the case of a car used by a married couple, ownership of any property is usually classed as joint. For an explanation of the difference between the 'owner' of a vehicle and the 'registered keeper' of a vehicle see link below:
Civil dispute - in a civil dispute over ownership of a car, if you are the legal owner of the vehicle and your ex has it, you can either require its return and seek a court order to this effect or sue them for its cost. You will need to seek legal advice from a solicitor to do this.
Police involvement – the police will only become involved in situations of this nature if a criminal offence has been/is about to be committed. Therefore, if your ex threatens you or you have been advised to report the matter as theft etc., you would be justified in calling the police on 101 for a non-emergency response or 999 for an emergency response.