Calls for 'dead laws' to be repealed


Wesley Johnson
Wednesday 04 April 2012 18:14 BST

More than 800 dead laws, some of which date back to the 14th century, should be swept away in a bid to clear up the statute book, a report said today.

The oldest, from around 1322, regulated how animals should be taken to pay the king's debts, including details on how they should be fed, cared for and sold, and what livestock should be exempt.

It is part of one of 50 Acts which should be partly repealed along with a total of 817 whole Acts, the joint report by the Law Commission for England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission said.

The move is the largest repeals Bill the two commissions have ever produced and is expected to be introduced into Parliament this summer.

Sir James Munby, chairman of the Law Commission for England and Wales, said: "Getting rid of statutory dead wood helps to simplify and modernise our law, making it more intelligible.

"It saves time and costs for lawyers and others who need to know what the law actually is, and makes it easier for citizens to access justice."

He added: "We are committed to ridding the statute book of meaningless provisions from days gone by and making sure our laws are relevant to the modern world."

The most recent provision recommended for the scrapheap in the 19th Statute Law (Repeals) Bill is a tax provision from 2010.

The section of the Taxation (International and Other Provisions) Act 2010 is "ineffective" and has stopped serving any useful purpose after a Taw Law Rewrite project, the report said.

Among other provisions destined for the scrapheap are an 1856 Act designed to help anyone imprisoned over debts secure their early release from jail.

The Marshalsea, on the south bank of the Thames in Southwark, London, was one of the more well-known "debtors' prisons" and a group commonly known as the Thatched House Society was set up to help secure their early release.

But as demand for its work fell, the Imprisoned Debtors Discharge Society's Act 1856 was brought in to enable the society "to apply any or all of its surplus income to such other charities as the society thought fit".

But today's report said: "The abolition of imprisonment for debt brought about by the Debtors Act 1869 appears to have prompted the demise of the society: there is no evidence to indicate that it continued thereafter.

"As a result the 1856 Act is now long spent and is ripe for repeal."

A further 16 old enactments which were passed between 1798 and 1828 to tax pints of ale, beer or bitter brewed or sold in certain parts of Scotland in order to raise funds for building roads should also be scrapped, the report said.

The laws earmarked for repeal also cover subjects from benevolent institutions and civil and criminal justice to Indian railways and turnpikes.

John Saunders, head of the Law Commission's statute law repeals team, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "Parliament is brilliant at making the laws, it is not quite so good at getting rid of them.

"It clearly can be complicated. Having too much statute on any particular topic creates problems for researchers and lawyers and others who need to know what the law is.

"It's a sort of spring cleaning task we do every four years."

These include:

* An 1800 Act to hold a lottery to win the £30,000 Pigot Diamond after its owners failed to sell it because its value, "the equal of any known diamond in Europe", was too great;

* Some 40 Acts relating to the City of Dublin and passed by Parliament before Ireland was partitioned in 1921;

* A 1696 Act to fund the rebuilding of St Paul's Cathedral after the Great Fire of 1666;

* A 1710 Act to raise coal duty to pay for 50 new churches in London;

* A total of 38 obsolete Acts relating to railway companies operating in British India and the wider East Indies.

Ten outdated acts...

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1. Wearing armour in Parliament.

A law passed in the second year of Edward III’s reign barred anyone from entering Parliament or any other assembly wearing armour. While this might seem obsolete, it would also prohibit politicians from bringing guns to Prime Minister’s questions, so may be for the best. Imagine how much more damage Michael Heseltine could have caused if clad in steel.

2. Keeping a whale from the King

The Bottlenose Whale that stranded itself up the Thames in 2006 should have been offered to Her Majesty, according to an act of 1322. The law states that “whales and great Sturgeons taken in the Sea or elsewhere within the Realm” shall belong to the sovereign. A national fish-hunt began in 2004 after Welsh fisherman Robert Davies sold an endangered sturgeon, having been told by Buckingham Palace that he could “dispose of it as he saw fit.”

3. Beating a carpet in London

The Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 forbids the beating or shaking of any carpet, rug or mat in the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police. An exception is made for door mats – strictly before 8am – but, in an early blow against littering, Londoners should avoid throwing “coals, stones, shells, bricks or other materials” into the street.

4. Hanging your washing across the street

Fines of up to £1000 await the citizen who tries to hang clothes on a line across a street, according to the Town Police Clauses Act of 1847. The same law prohibits leaving any “furniture…cask, tub, basket, pail, or bucket” in the street, or performing any cask maintenance thereupon.

5. Minding a cow while drunk

The Licensing Act of 1872 forbids anyone to be drunk while in charge of a cow or steam engine on a public highway. Disorderly rustlers may be apprehended and are liable for a penalty “not exceeding forty shillings”. Unlike some others, the section has not been amended to fit the modern sentence scale, raising the awkward question of conversion rates for anyone attempting to prosecute.

6. Firing a cannon near a house

The law does not look kindly on anyone who fires a cannon (“or other firearm of greater calibre than a common fowling-piece”) within 300 yards of a dwelling. But statute is surprisingly lenient: offenders will only be fined after a warning that their bombardment is causing “annoyance”, and then only up to £200.

7. Starting but not finishing a railway

In the 1860s, businessmen rushed to fund and build new railways – until rampant speculation caused the banking crisis of 1866 and wiped out dozens of projects. Only a raft of ghost legislation – special acts authorising railways that were never completed or even begun – now testifies to their existence. The Commission has singled these out for repeal.

8. Knocking and running

The children’s game of Knock Knock Ginger (or Ding Dong Ditch in the USA) was apparently such a menace in the 19th century that Parliament made it illegal to “wilfully and wantonly disturb any inhabitant” at their door without lawful excuse. By the same law, compacting ice and snow on the street into a slide is strictly forbidden.

9. Running a farm on your doorstep

Would-be guerrilla farmers had best beware the laws against keeping pigstys in the street, as they are barred from feeding or foddering “a horse or other animal” in a public thoroughfare. A fine of £500 can likewise be levied against those who slaughter cattle there.

10. Eating the Queen’s Swans

Technically, all unmarked swans in British waters belong to the Queen and are reserved for feasting. But every year teams of boatmen go about the Thames, tagging the flocks to save them from her dinner table in an official ceremony known as ‘swan-upping’. They compete with a royal Swan Marker, who, confusingly, leaves the swans he catches unmarked. Thankfully, none of them are eaten anymore.

...and five that don't actually exist

1. Dying in Parliament

Death in Pariament is supposedly illegal because anyone who dies there is eligible for a costly state funeral. But the Law Commission has found no such law, and in any case, people have died in Parliament before: Guy Fawkes was executed in the old yard, while Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated in the lobby in 1812.

2. Wearing socks within 100 yards of the King

Laws regulating clothing – so-called sumptuary laws – were common in the early modern era. Different social classes were prescribed to wear different forms of dress, with expensive dyes and colours kept for the nobility. But there is no evidence of a law that specifically mentions socks, nor any still in force.

3. Dodging longbow practice

It’s true that every Englishman between 17 and 69 was once required to keep and practice with a longbow. The skeletons of medieval archers are sometimes dug up with massive, deformed left arms from years of regular shooting. But the Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 abolished mandatory practice.

4. Urinating in a policeman’s helmet

It’s sometimes claimed that a pregnant woman is allowed to urinate in a policeman’s helmet. But local by-laws tend to prohibit relieving yourself in any public place whatsoever. “Although discretion not to charge might be exercised if a pregnant woman were caught in public,” the Law Commission ruminates, “it does seem unlikely that a police officer would offer his helmet for this purpose.”

5. Impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner

Falsely donning the red jacket of a Chelsea Pensioner really was perjury once upon a time. The army hospital was an early precursor of the welfare state, and, predictably, it sometimes suffered early benefit fraud. The Chelsea and Kilmainham Hospitals Act of 1826 made it illegal to falsely claim such a pension (for example, for a deceased veteran), but was repealed in a round of legislative spring-cleaning in 2008.

Laurence Dodds

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