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Legal lounge: odd laws

May 22 2009
If you capture a whale, make sure you offer it to the Queen, who also owns the swans Following on from our recent report on the vagaries of the Vagrancy Act, it's time for a look at some of the curious laws governing this country. Did you know that if Gordon Brown or David Blunkett turned up to the House of Commons in a suit of armour, they would be breaking the law? I can't imagine what the punishment would be. Punishments for pirates (although I'm not suggesting Brown and Blunket are pirates) were, however, pretty serious until recently. They could be sentenced to death, by hanging, for treason and piracy with violence on the high seas. Luckily this has now been struck off the statute books, but our government clearly wasn't in any hurry to abolish it  – they only got around to it in 1998. If a whale is captured near the coast, it must first be offered to the Queen (it's not entirely clear for what purpose) and cannot be dealt with in any way without her consent. Swans swimming in open rivers belong to the Crown. Yes, these are the laws of our country. But the law does not confine itself to the natural world.

There are quite a number of peculiar laws that govern town living. You can be charged £200 or imprisoned for 14 days for beating a rug in the street, except - you will be pleased to hear - if you do so before 8am. The same penalty applies if you fly a kite on the street, ring someone's door bell and scarper or sing an obscene song. Towns, too, are entitled to pass their own byelaws. You will be relieved to hear that it is only legal to shoot a Welsh person inside the city of Chester after midnight and with a bow and arrow. However the Scots are not so lucky. Any day excepting Sundays in York, it is perfectly legal to shoot a Scotsman – providing you do so with a bow and arrow.

Still, at least we don't live in North Dakota where it is illegal to fall asleep on the road with your shoes on. Or in Connecticut, where it is illegal to walk backwards after sunset. And at least our laws no longer really take into account holy days: you can get into trouble in Israel if you pick your nose on a Saturday and in Scotland, it is illegal to fish on Sundays. So what? In the United Kingdom these absurd laws don't really cause anyone any harm. True. But that would mean, you would hope, that our government is not passing any more laws to add to this collection of pointless regulation. Unfortunately that is not the case.

Who would have thought that anyone would pass a law about feeding pigeons – but in 2003 that is exactly what Ken Livingstone did when he made it illegal for people to feed pigeons in Trafalgar Square without his permission. But this has a more serious point too; think of ASBOs for example. Our courts have the power to pass orders against "anti-social" behaviour – without any limitation – and this means that ridiculous and prohibitive orders are being passed as we speak. ASBOs were granted against a suicidal woman to ban her from bridges and against a boy with Tourette Syndrome - a condition which causes compulsive swearing - to ban him from swearing. While our government's appetite for absurd laws is still alive, it is a worry that they have the legal governance of our country, in their hands.