The United Kingdom’s rich ancient legal history provides ample examples of legislation that has a rather bizarre or odd angle to it. I always find it interesting to read about these odd laws, and wonder at what point they are simply urban legends, rather than real laws. Most times, posts about weird laws don’t provide citations to the laws that they reference. I like to dig a little deeper for my posts and try to locate the source. I love figuring out how the laws evolved, and where I can learn a little bit about the history of them. In the past, I have blogged about other weird laws, UFOs, zombies, and laws that regulate revealing the presence of ghosts during real estate conveyances. For this post, I’m going to go through a few weird laws that are widely published and attempt to determine whether they are true or simply urban legends.
As I have mentioned previously, the great people at the Law Commission’s Statute Law Repeals team are constantly working to ‘clean up‘ outdated legislation, which means that more and more of these odd or dated statutes are being repealed and now simply becoming the stuff of legend rather than real laws.
Here are just a few of the odd laws that I’ve seen recently.
You cannot ride in a taxi if you have the plague.
This one is true (and surely I’m not the only person to find this oddly reassuring). The law is contained in the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1985. Public Health Acts date back to the mid-nineteenth century. The relevant provision is section 33 of the 1985 Act. It prohibits anyone who has a notifiable disease, which include the plague, cholera, relapsing fever, small pox and typhus, from using a public conveyance that is used to transport multiple people or from using any public conveyance without notifiying the owner or driver that he or she is suffering from a notifiable disease. The penalty for violating the law is a fine.
Think that’s harsh? There are a variety of other provisions that contain a number of prohibitions for anyone suffering from notifiable disease. Have a case of cholera? Want to return your library books or check some out for some light reading during recuperation? Section 25 of the above Act provides that it is against the law. Better to pay the fines for overdue books rather than the fine, plus disinfection costs, for breaking the law. There are a number of other provisions, aimed at controlling the spread of disease, that prohibit people infected with notifiable diseases from entering public places, and allow the exclusion of children from school if they have, or have been exposed to, a notifiable disease. Local authorities even have powers to apply to a justice of the peace to obtain an order to remove a person with a notifiable disease to a place to be treated, and if necessary, detained there.
These laws are not without criticism. In 2005, the UK’s Law Commission stated that the public health legislation was overdue for review, noting that the scientific understanding of disease contagion at the time the laws were drafted are not congruent with today’s scientific knowledge. Additional powers of detention of individuals suffering from diseases raised concern that the law would not stand up to a challenge brought under the Human Rights Act 1998, as it would be “difficult [for the government] to argue that exercise of these powers is ‘necessary’ or even effective in disease control.” The Law Commission expressed “fear… that the effectiveness of the British response to a major outbreak of contagious disease could be significantly impaired by the defects in the law.” Despite these concerns, no significant changes in the law have been made.
It’s illegal to operate a cow or steam engine while intoxicated.
True! Although the term ‘operate a cow’ does leave my mind wandering a little bit. Section 12 of the Licensing Act 1872 takes us back to a bygone era and provides that it is an offence to be ‘in charge of’ (that makes more sense, right?) steam engines, horses, carriages, and cows whilst on a public highway or place. It also makes possessing a loaded firearm while drunk an offense (this is in addition to the variety of other more serious offenses carrying a loaded firearm in public could also give rise to). The offense is punishable with a fine and/or imprisonment of up to one month.
It is illegal for women to scold.
Used to be true. This can be traced back to the common law offense of being a “common scold.” Punishment for this offense included the rather unfortunately, but descriptively, named “ducking chair” or “cucking chair.” The offender was secured in a chair and suspended over a body of water and repeatedly ducked underneath it. Alternate punishments included the wearing of a scold’s bridle. In 1888, a government paper referred to it as an ”antiquated offence, characteristic of the rude simplicity of the times when they were made the subject of prosecution as crimes.” Despite this, it took an additional eighty years from the publication of this statement for it to be abolished in 1967 by section 13 of the Criminal Law Act as an “obsolete crime.” Also abolished at that time were the offenses of challenging to fight, eavesdropping, and being a common night walker or common barrator.
The common law offense of being a common scold even crossed the Atlantic to the United States, where there were several reported cases of this crime. In one case in Pennsylvania, the judge was reported as expressing some disdain as to the law and the sentence of three ducks in the ducking chair. In the ruling, the offense was held as indictable, however, the punishment of the ducking chair did not occur, with the judge rather descriptively stating, “I am not so idolatrous a worshipper as to tie myself to the tail of this dung-cart of the common law.” Jones v. Com., 12 S. & R. 220, cited in Common Scold. Ducking-Stool, Harvard Law Review , Vol. 5, No. 2 (May 15, 1891), p. 91. Needless to say, it wasn’t long until the entire offense fell out of favor.
It is illegal to gamble in a library.
This is only recently untrue. Apparently, lots of naughty English folk liked to congregate in libraries and cause disturbances and general mayhem, so much so that an entire act, dedicated to offenses that could only occur in a library was drafted and enacted. The Library Offences Act of 1898 provided that it was illegal to not only bet and gamble in a library but also to behave in a disorderly manner, use violent or abusive language. It also creates the offense of failing to leave the library after the fixed closing hours if the offender has been properly warned. These offenses are punishable with a fine. Interestingly, in 2005 the offense of betting and gambling in a library was repealed (and described as the offense of annoying library users); however, the other offenses remain good law.