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Legal Opinion: Time for the abolition of the workhouse and the bawdy house?

Some laws have been used just once in 200 years. Others have simply outlived their usefulness. Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, looks at plans to tidy up the statute-book

Wednesday 06 February 2008 01:00 GMT

Dr Richard Brocklesby was the Tony Martin of his day. When, in the late 18th century, his London house was robbed as a result of information supplied by one his own servants, the case became a cause célèbre, uniting the property-owning classes in a campaign to change the law.

Dr Brocklesby, a Surgeon General of the British Army and close friend of Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson, was so convinced that the burglary had been an inside job that he petitioned Parliament to bring in harsh penalties to those who supplied false character references. Brocklesby maintained that he would never have employed the crooked servant if his references hadn't been quite so glowing.

His campaign was taken up by MPs and led to the Servants' Characters Act 1792 which sought to address the perceived evils of false character references. The new law created a number of offences, including falsely impersonating any master or mistress and giving a false character reference to a servant.

More than 200 years later, the rights of householders are still being debated in Parliament. The most recent example is the case of the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin, who shot and killed a burglar on his property. Today there is still a forceful campaign to strengthen the householder's right to self-defence. But the heated concerns about the perceived evils of servants' references have died away.

Last week the Law Commission reported that in the two centuries during which the 1792 Act has been in force, there has been only one reported case of criminal supply of false references. Indeed, there is no record of any prosecutions ever having been brought under it in modern times.

The Act, say the Commissioners, has become obsolete and is one of 260 pieces of legislation which the Commissioners have identified as ripe for repeal in their 18th Draft Statute Law Repeal Bill. Such a dry title belies a fascinating document containing some wonderful examples of laws that once propped up society but have now outlived their usefulness.

The oldest law considered suitable for abolition is the 1695 London to Harwich Roads Act, which allowed county justices to set up turnpikes to collect tolls on the route. The most recent laws to be repealed will be minor elements of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 relating to the forging of servicemen's discharge certificates.

Other laws that the Commissioners of England, Wales and Scotland have found to be cluttering up the statute-book includes one of 1839 requiring street musicians – particularly brass bands and organists – to leave an area if told to do so by irritated householders. Laws relating to the Victorian "bawdy house" are also subject to repeal. Similarly, the legal foundations for the building and maintenance of workhouses, including the workhouse at Wapping mentioned by Charles Dickens in his collection of literary sketches entitled The Uncommercial Traveller, are also recommended for repeal.

"People need to be clear about what is in force and what is not, and an oversized statute-book filled with out-of-date information wastes everybody's time," says Sir Terence Etherton, chairman of the Law Commission of England and Wales. "As part of our drive to modernise and simplify the law, we want to rid the statute-book of meaningless provisions from days gone by which are no longer relevant in our modern world."

But all these laws are part of Britain's rich legal heritage and it would be a shame if after their removal from the statute-book they are consigned to the constitutional dustbin and forgotten.

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