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Weird Laws, or Urban Legends?

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As mentioned in my previous post, during my day-to-day work at my cool job, I never know what I’m going to stumble upon.  It so happened that, as I was gathering information for my post on sumptuary laws, I came across a page of ‘legal curiosities’ compiled by the UK’s Law Commission and published by the UK’s Ministry of Justice.  This document includes the kind of quirky and weird laws that people love to quote at parties (or perhaps that’s just me?).  The great people at the Law Commission’s Statute Law Repeals team (SLRt), whose job is to ‘clean up‘ outdated legislation, have gone through some of the more commonly quoted ‘weird laws’ and done a little research to determine if they are true or false.  The SLRt does note that its list is not definitive.  Given that a large majority of odd laws stem from ancient by-laws that are incredibly difficult to research, I think that statement is entirely understandable.  I have pulled a couple of the laws from the SLRt’s site, and added in a couple of my favorite weird laws to the list below.

  • It is unlawful to drive with a sheep in your car.

This one is true.  And for those of you who may have been wondering, no, it does not matter if it is the family pet.  This was clarified in 2000 when police in England saw the unusual sight of a sheep hanging its head out of a car window.  They pulled the car over and found a sheep inside, described as the family pet, being driven to some nearby woods for a walk (we do like to walk a lot in England).  There was no prosecution in this case, but a warning was issued.  The family also had a pet dog on the front seat of the car (and yes, it was a sheepdog) and received an additional warning for not properly securing its dog in the rear of the car.

  • You can’t shoot a Welsh person on Sunday with a longbow within city walls.

The SLRt says that this is a no-no.  I particularly like that the SLRt notes that not only can you not shoot a Welsh person on a Sunday with a longbow within the city walls, but that it is  illegal to shoot them on any other day, in any other place, and with any other choice of weaponry.  I’m glad that was clarified.  The SLRt notes that this statement may have stemmed from a City Ordinance passed in 1403 that required Welshmen to be expelled from certain places.

  • You cannot keep a lunatic without a license.

The SLRt found no evidence of the existence of a provision that specifically prohibited this, but determined that it likely came from a requirement to have a license to run what is now referred to as a psychiatric hospital under the Madhouse Act 1774.

For anyone who has ever thought about doing this, think again.  It is indeed unlawful, and even has its own Act rather descriptively entitled A Statute forbidding Bearing of Armour, dated 1313.  I do believe that this little oddity is still relevant today.  I know I would be distracted if someone entered the Commons wearing a suit of armour.

  • It is unlawful to damage grass.

Now, anyone who has been to England may have noticed that we are quite particular about our grass, which, as a general rule, we like to look like a putting green.

Whilst some Brits may want the damaging of grass to be an offense, the SLRt people say this is not quite the case.  Damage to a person’s lawn may be covered under criminal damage laws, or perhaps even tort law.  For village greens, section 12 of the Inclosure Act 1857 provides that it is an offense, punishable by a fine to:

wilfully cause any injury or damage to any fence of any such town or village green or land, or wilfully and without lawful authority lead or drive any cattle or animal thereon, or wilfully lay any manure, soil, ashes, or rubbish, or other matter or thing thereon, or do any other act whatsoever to the injury of such town or village green or land, or to the interruption of the use or enjoyment thereof as a place for exercise and recreation.

So, if you visit England, please do not injure the grass on our greens.  Or dump anything there.  We might get upset.

  • It is illegal not to tell the tax man anything you do not want him to know, but legal not to tell him information you do not mind him knowing.

What?!  This one has a little hint of truth, with the SLRt indicating that it seems to be a simplification (!) of tax avoidance regulations that:

requires disclosure of certain tax schemes and prohibits arrangements which secure a tax advantage from being kept confidential where those benefiting wish to keep it confidential in order to facilitate repeated benefits.

There are so many more quirky laws that I could add, but this would end up being a much longer post.  For my next post, I’ll be writing about the use of plain English by the government and in legislation – rather appropriate given that last weird law.

Update: I saw that Widener Law, Delaware Library was inspired by this blog to look at some weird laws in Delaware.  So far they have blogged on whether it is unlawful to fly over water without carrying food and the legality of marriage on a dare (my favorite).

Comments (3)

  1. i am a LEGEND.

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