Stripped from the statutes, the laws of diminishing returns

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THERE are some strange and antiquated laws that have, for one reason or another, remained on the UK’s statue book.

Equally, there are quite a few urban myths that masquerade as legal curiosities. So, contrary to popular belief, you can’t shoot a Welsh person on a Sunday, with a longbow in the Cathedral Close in Hereford. The idea that it may once have been allowed appears to originate from the City Ordinance of 1403, passed by the Earl of Chester, which required Welshmen to be expelled from the city.

Today, unlawful killings are covered by criminal law no matter where and when they are committed, which means the people of York aren’t allowed to shoot a Scotsman on sight, even if they use a crossbow.

Similarly, there is no law that forbids people who aren’t wearing socks from standing within 100 yards of the reigning monarch, while it isn’t legal for a pregnant woman to relieve herself anywhere she likes, including in a policeman’s helmet.

But with Parliament churning out around 3,000 pages of law each year, the job of repealing old, obsolete laws is an indefinite one. In its latest report, the Law Commission has pinpointed more than 800 laws, some of which date back to the 14th century, that should be swept away in a bid to clear up the statute book.

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 more than 50 Acts, identified in the joint report by the Law Commission for England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission, that should be partly repealed.

In total, 817 whole Acts are due to be removed in the largest repeals Bill the two commissions have ever produced which is expected to be introduced into Parliament this summer.

Sir James Munby, chairman of the Law Commission for England and Wales, says repealing redundant laws helps modernise and simplify the statute book and stops people being misled by obsolete laws. “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 says.

“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 Law Commission, an independent body set up in 1965, is responsible for making sure the legal system is up-to-date and has a team of law reformers whose job is to wade through the statute books for strange English laws and add them to Repeal Bills, which are then passed by Parliament every few years.

With 35,000 unrepealed Acts on the statute book it’s a painstaking job. “It takes a phenomenal amount of work and we not only have to be certain that the laws are obsolete, we have to make sure there are no unintended consequences,” a spokeswoman says.

The most recent to be recommended for the scrapheap in the latest Statute Law (Repeals) Bill – the 19th Law Commission report of its kind – is a tax provision from 2010, which is “ineffective” and has stopped serving any useful purpose.

However, there are still some quirky old laws that aren’t being scrubbed out just yet. For instance, under a statute dating back to 1313 it remains illegal to enter the Houses of Parliament wearing a suit of armour. While the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 prevents anyone from firing a cannon within 300 yards of a house, keeping a pigsty in their front garden and “wilfully and wantonly” disturbing people by ringing their doorbells or knocking on their doors.

So now you know.