The UK’s strangest laws that are still enforced

Laws from the 1300s are still in force in Britain, here’s how to avoid getting into trouble

Harry Cockburn
Thursday 08 September 2016 17:09 BST
'Handling a salmon in suspicious circumstances' remains a punishable offence in Britain
'Handling a salmon in suspicious circumstances' remains a punishable offence in Britain

The legal system in Britain is the product of centuries of law creation, alteration and destruction, and the UK still has many archaic pieces of legislation to prove it.

Catching sturgeon, importing potatoes and even drinking too much in the pub all have legal consequences, according to new research that has rootled out Britain’s strangest laws that remain in existence.

The research revealed 10 lesser-known laws that remain on the statute books despite being, in some cases ancient, and in others simply bizarre.

Christopher Sargeant, a PhD student at Cambridge University, spent two months analysing British laws and compiling the list.

He used four factors to develop the list: the age of the legal rule, the degree of clarity of the law, its modern-day relevance and the current public awareness of the law.

“What was interesting was some of them were actually very new, which was quite surprising,” he told the Independent.

However, others were almost prehistoric. The existing law that “all beached whales and sturgeons must be offered to the Reigning Monarch”, initially came into force in 1322.

According to Mr Sargeant it may have reflected the desire of King Edward II to try to control the levels of “overly conspicuous consumption” in the realm.

The law was tested as recently as 2004, when a fisherman named Robert Davies caught a 9lb sturgeon off the coast of Wales which he duly offered to the Queen, only to receive notice that she was happy for him to “dispose of the fish as he saw fit”.

Afterwards, Mr Davies became the subject to a short criminal investigation on the basis that sturgeon are a protected species and it is an offence to deliberately catch or kill them. The particular sturgeon in question, dubbed Stanley, now resides at the Natural History Museum in London.

More recently, a piece of legislature which came into effect in 2004, banned imports of Polish potatoes to Britain without first notifying the authorities.

“They were concerned because in 2004 there was a massive outbreak of something called ringrot in potatoes from Poland,” Mr Sargeant said.

“It’s still in force and you have to follow that procedure”.

One law which is not followed as closely however, is part of the 1872 Licensing Act, which states: “It is Illegal to be drunk in the pub.”

The legislation adds: “Every person found drunk… on any licensed premises, shall be liable to a penalty”.

Originally brought in to encourage lower levels of drinking, the law is still in use today as a means of dealing with unacceptable public drunkenness.

“It could get used if you’re excessively drunk or causing trouble and need to be taken home to sober up and won’t go voluntarily,” Mr Sargeant said.

Other bizarre legislation that remains on the statute books includes the 1313 law that it is illegal to wear armour in parliament; that it is an offence to be drunk and in charge of cattle in England and Wales; and also a 1986 poaching law states that it is illegal “to handle a salmon in suspicious circumstances”.

The research was commissioned by insurance firm, Privilege, which questions whether so many obscure laws are necessary and calls for many to be repealed.

The top ten weirdest laws in Britain today

1. All beached whales and sturgeons must be offered to the Reigning Monarch

2. No person shall, in the course of a business, import into England, potatoes which he knows, or has reasonable cause to suspect, are from Poland

3. It is Illegal to be drunk in the pub

4. It is illegal to carry a plank along a pavement (as well as any ladder, wheel, pole, cask, placard, showboard, or hoop) in the Metropolitan Police District

5. MPs are not allowed to wear armour in Parliament

6. It is an offence to be drunk and in charge of cattle in England and Wales

7. It is illegal to handle a salmon in suspicious circumstances

8. It is an offence to beat or shake any carpet, rug, or mat (except door mats before 8am) in a thoroughfare in the Metropolitan Police District

9. It is illegal to jump the queue in the Tube ticket hall

10. It is illegal to activate your burglar alarm without first nominating a ‘Key-Holder’ who can switch it off in your absence

So can I urinate in a policeman’s helmet if I am pregnant?

This is the archetypal antediluvian law which many people believe still exists – except unfortunately it doesn’t. Mr Sargeant told the Independent: “Urinating in policeman’s helmet was one of the ones I looked for and I couldn’t find any evidence for it.”

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