Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg recently asked people to suggest laws that need to be repealed – The Strange Laws of Old England is full of them.
Is it really necessary to have a law that prevents MPs wearing armour in the houses of parliament? Or one that bans children flying kites in the metropolitan area? Why is it against the law to beat a carpet or rug outside your house? Or hang your bed sheets out of the window? Did you know under the Slander of Women Act of 1891 it was against the law to ‘impute unchastity or adultery’ to any woman in England, though the News of the World does it every Sunday. And in The Strange Laws of Old England there are plenty of redundant laws from Scotland, Ireland and Wales too.
There are tons to choose from. Currently there are 360 volumes of statutes at large and general public acts – and climbing. There are another 682 volumes of local, personal and private acts. On top of that, there are another thirty-two shelves of statutory instruments.
The distinguished jurist Sir Cecil Carr said: ‘As a collection our statute book might be summed up as beyond the average citizen’s pocket to purchase, beyond his bookshelves to accommodate, beyond his leisure to study and beyond his intellect to comprehend.’
He was employed to tidy up the statutes after World War II, and failed. English Common Law – the basis of the law in the English-speaking world – is full of strange and inappropriate statutes, many of are still in force today. A lot of them are in Latin or Norman French. Nick Clegg has been showing of his language skills, but I am sure this would put him to the test.
What we do know is that, of the sixty clauses of the Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215 ‘to be kept in our Kingdom of England forever’, fifty-seven have been repealed, leaving just three. And the Habeas Corpus Bill, tabled in 1679 following a London ladies’ drunken party, was never passed properly by parliament. Nick Clegg launched his campaign under the title ‘Your Freedom’ – well, where’s your freedom now?
Did you know that it is against the law to check into a hotel in London for the purpose of lovemaking? Under a statute of Edward II, all whales washed up on the shore belong to the monarch, while in the city of Chester it is legal to shoot Welshmen after dark. Then there’s the Duke of Edinburgh, who breaks the law every time he attends the opening of parliament – but no one, not even Mr Clegg, does anything about it.
The Strange Laws of Old England by Nigel Cawthorne is available to buy now from Piatkus, priced at £9.99.