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November 08, 2007

Ancient laws

Yesterday's State Opening of Parliament (The layabouts are back in Westminster so we can expect another avalanche of useless laws and more tax) was, as usual, a grand affair. The ritual that surrounds it is always interesting and actually quite moving, with the assembly of all the Peers in the Ermine and red velvet, the various "Officers" of the Palace of Westminster assembling in their robes and all the preparations for the Queen's own arrival in State. One small item which is probably not well known is that the Imperial State Crown, which Her Majesty wears while reading her speech to the assembled Peers and Commons, is conveyed in a State Coach under the escort of four officers of the Household, from Buckingham Palace to the State Apartments at Westminster exactly two hours before the Queen herself follows in her own State Coach. I wonder how many people seeing that confection of white gold and diamonds - there are three thousand of them - realise that it weighs a whopping three pounds and her majesty must walk and sit throughout the ritual with that load on her head. As she is now over eighty years of age, a remarkable feat in itself.

But the Opening has, this year, flagged up some of our older laws and I suppose it is inevitable that, in a legal system now well over a thousand years old, that there will be some that are, frankly ridiculous and others that are funny. And I am not talking about the garbage the present shower of incompetents in Westminster and Whitehall have perpetrated in the last fifteen years either.

One of the funniest has to be the law against dying in Parliament. That's right, you can't die in the Houses of Parliament, to do so is to break the law and you could be arrested and hung for it. It is also illegal to enter the Palace of Westminster wearing armour and if you look at the floor of the Commons you will see a red stripe on the floor in front of the front benches on each side. Any speaker who "crosses the line" during a debate is immediately ejected from the house! The reason? The red lines mark the point which places the debaters outside the reach of each other's swords! Another is that placing a postage stamp bearing the Effigy of the Sovereign upside down on an envelope is an act of treason - a beheading offence for peers and hanging for commoners. A Scotsman carrying a bow and arrows in the City of York may lawfully be killed by any upright citizen and a woman working in a tropical fish store in Liverpool may legally go topless. A dead whale washed up on our shores is divided between the King and the Queen - the head to the King and the tail to the Queen. The law does not specify what happens to the bits between!

Thanks to that bundle of Christian joy, Oliver Cromwell, it is illegal to eat Mince Pies on Christmas Day.

The taxman has some ancient teeth as well, among them are that it is illegal not to tell him something that YOU do not want him to know - but perfectly legal not to tell him something you don't mind him knowing. Work that one out.

Probably the strangest and funniest has to be the law that allows a pregnant woman to urinate anywhere she likes - including into a policeman's helmet. I don't think I want to know the origins of that last bit, frankly the Bind Moggles.

It is one of the difficulties we face in Britain is that our legal system is so ancient that it is actually run on the principle of defending the citizen from the interference of the State. In contrast, many of the continental systems have become "codified" and the civil law is written and managed differently to ours. It is true to say that, in Britain our law is written liberally and interpretted strictly, while on the Continent it is written strictly and interpretted liberally. The interpretation is made by a court of law in our case and not by the individual or the authors. This is known as the "Common Law" system and stretches back to pre-Conquest (1066 and all that!). Just to further complicate matters, most of the EU Law conains elements which are in conflict with the principles of English Law and this is why there is so much opposition to the EU from the common folk of this island nation.

Oh yes, and just to make life even more entertaining, Scottish Law is based upon a Roman Law system and that of the Northern Ireland Assembly has elements of the Brehon Law, Roman Law and English Law all mingled.

No wonder lawyers thrive in the UK!

Posted by The Gray Monk at November 8, 2007 04:11 PM

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But methinks that the Gorse Fox recently read that 75% of all of the world's lawyers are in the USA. GF thinks there should be a campaign to keep it that way.

Posted by: Gorse Fox at November 8, 2007 07:59 PM

I agree, unfortunately I suspect the buggers are cloning themselves ....

Posted by: The Gray Monk at November 8, 2007 11:02 PM