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UK’s strangest laws: fact or fiction?

Many people will have seen a newspaper or magazine article setting out “the top 5 strangest laws” or similar, many of those laws have in fact been repealed. So which laws are still on the statute books, and which have been consigned to history?


Solicitor & Arbitrator Matthew Hearsum reviews the top 5 Strangest laws still in effect, and the top 5 laws that no longer apply.

Top 10 strangest laws

1.     London taxi drivers must carry a bale of hay
 

FICTION: Under section 51 of the London Hackney Carriage Act 1831 it was an offence, punishable by a fine of 20 Shillings, for a driver to feed his horses anything other than oats out of a bag, or hay from his hands. However, there was no law requiring the driver to carry the oats or the hay.  In any event, s. 51 was repealed by the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1976.

2.     A whale washed up or caught around the British Isles is the property of the king…

FACT: Under section 13 of the Prerogativa Regis of 1322,a whale washed up or caught around the British Isles is the property of the King (or Queen). However, in practice the Natural History Museum now deals with beached whales.

3.     …but the tail belongs to the Queen to make whalebone for her corset.

FICTION: There is no law that requires the tail to be given to the Queen. Even if there was, it would be useless - whalebone, or “baleen”, in fact comes from the mouth of a whale, not the tail!

4.     It is illegal not to tell the taxman something you don’t want him to know… but not telling him things you don’t mind him knowing is fine.

FACT: Under the Tax Avoidance Schemes (Prescribed Descriptions of Arrangements) Regulations 2006 you only have to tell the taxman what you don’t want him to know.

5.     Treason and piracy are still punishable by with the death penalty.

FICTION: Although the death penalty for murder was abolished in 1965, it was not until s. 36 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 that it was abolished for piracy and treason.

6.     It is treason to put a stamp bearing the face of the king or queen upside-down.

FICTION: The law governing the offence of treason is still mostly set out in the Treason Act 1351 which was amended in 1495, 1695, 1702, 1708, 1814, 1842, 1848 and 1998. However, none of those amendments makes it illegal to place a stamp upside down.

7.     It is illegal to eat mince pies on Christmas Day

FICTION: On 22 December 1657 Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Council did ban the consumption of Mince Pies and Christmas Puddings; in fact, they abolished the celebration of Christmas altogether!

However, when King Charles II returned to the throne of England in 1659 all of the laws passed by Cromwell were declared as invalid on the basis that they did not have Royal Assent, so those who want to enjoy a Christmas treat need not fear a night in the police cells.

8.     It is illegal to die in the Houses or Parliament

FICTION: Under s. 29 of the Coroners Act 1988 the Coroner of the Queen’s Household must hold inquests into the death of anyone in the Royal Palaces, which includes the Palace of Westminster (i.e. the Houses of Parliament).

However, the Coroner would have to summon members of the Houses of Parliament to sit as the Coroner’s Jury, so in order to avoid disruptions to Parliament a polite convention arose that no-one dies in the Palace of Westminster, but instead the place of death is shown as the ambulance on the way to the nearby St. Thomas’s  Hospital

9.     It is illegal to wear a suit of armour in parliament

FACT: Under the Statute Forbidding the Bearing of Armour of 1313: “The King forbids the coming armed to Parliament”.

10. It is illegal to hang your laundry in the street

FACT: Under the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 it is an offence, punishable by a £1,000 fine or 14 days in prison, to air even clean laundry in public. That Act also contains other restriction on what you can do in the street, for example:

  • You cannot sing “any profane or obscene song or Ballard” nor use “profane or obscene language”.
  • You cannot ring any doorbell so as to “wilfully and wantonly disturb any inhabitant”.
  • You cannot fly a kite in the street.
  • You cannot shake or beat any carpet rug or mat, except door mats, which must be beaten or shaken before 08:00am only.

For further information regarding the UK's strangest laws please contact Matthew Hearsum on 020 8971 1020 or email matthew.hearsum@morrlaw.com

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