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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 January 2006, 12:12 GMT
Ever been drunk driving a steam engine?
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Town Police Clauses Act 1847
An exhibition at the Law Society highlights unusual pieces of legislation which remain on the statute book. Why have they survived, when they appear so at odds with modern life?

Think Asbos are draconian? Consider the Victorian equivalent.

Hanging washing in the street, beating a carpet and flying a kite are set out in the Town Police Clauses Act, 1847, (chapter 89, section 28) as punishable by a 1,000 fine.

But don't be thankful time has moved on because, in legal terms, it hasn't.

This law, created to harmonise life for the millions of new city-dwellers living cheek by jowl, is still on the statute book. Its fine has recently been converted into modern money and it is still applicable in those areas designated under the act.

Wear armour to Parliament (Royal Prerogative 1279)
Fire a cannon close to a dwelling house (Met Police Act 1839)
Bet or gamble in the library reading room (Library Offences Act 1898)
Use any slide upon ice or snow (Town Police Clauses Act 1847)
Drive cattle through the streets of London (Metropolitan Streets Act 1867)
A new display at the Law Society library comprises this and seven other pieces of odd but existing legislation. It includes the Licensing Act 1872, which says being drunk in charge of a horse, cow or steam engine incurs a 200 fine and possibly jail for up to 51 weeks.

The library's resources manager Catherine Pease, who organised the exhibition, says it shows how far the lawmaking process goes back, with acts from the 13th and 14th centuries included.

In total there are more than 4,000 Public and General Acts, 11,000 Local Acts and 13,000 Private Acts dated before 1801 which are still on the statute books.

Shoot a Welshman with a crossbow within the city of Chester after sunset - this urban myth may be rooted in a local byelaw but it won't afford you any legal protection
The eight on display have survived the ongoing cull of obsolete laws by the statute law revision team, which has abolished 2,000 since 1965. It consults interest groups before its proposals for repeal are put to the Lord Chancellor and eventually the House of Lords.

Among those abolished in the last round was the Small Holdings Colonies Act 1916, which gave ex-servicemen their own land but later fell into disuse because ex-servicemen no longer had the required agricultural skills. The Airports Act 1986, which privatised the airport industry, is also no more.

It's our job to do the housekeeping, combing through the statute book for material which shouldn't be there anymore
John Saunders
Statute law revision team
As well as shedding light on the UK's economic, social and political life, this constant renewal of legislation saves time and money, says John Saunders, who heads the statute law revision team.

"Parliament passes a law to deal with a current situation and when that situation no longer applies, the law should cease to apply as well," he says.

"But it often remains and it's our job to do the housekeeping, combing through the statute book for material which shouldn't be there anymore.

"Until we actually get rid of it, people see it there and think it must mean something, which can be misleading for lawyers."

Fishy law

The ones that survive either serve some purpose or to repeal them would be too controversial, like the Easter Act 1928, which deems that Easter Sunday should be fixed as the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. But to enforce it would require agreement with Christian churches around the world.

Like many acts passed by Parliament, it doesn't come into force until a commencement act is made by a minister, so it sits on the statute book in a "ghost form", he says.

The potential abuse of obsolete laws was highlighted by Shakespeare in Measure for Measure, when Vienna's temporary leader Angelo ordered that men who seduce women before marriage be arrested.

More recently, in the UK, the government considered, but rejected, a plan that radical Muslim clerics be prosecuted under an ancient treason law, originally enshrined in 1351.

Children enjoy the snow in Barrow-in-Furness
One sure way to get arrested (see fact box)
But others have been resurrected, like the Royal Prerogative passed in 1324 which states that whales and sturgeon caught or washed up on British coastline be offered to the Crown.

In 2004, fisherman Robert Davies was investigated by police in Plymouth after selling a sturgeon caught in Swansea Bay. He had faxed the Master of the Royal Household and was told to keep the fish but was unaware it was still illegal to sell. He was not prosecuted and Stan the sturgeon ended up in the Natural History Museum.

So could one neighbour report another for carpet-beating?

"You would need a brass neck to do it and probably could bring your own private prosecution," says Mr Saunders. "But the reality is that laws against low-level criminal activity, like Asbos, there's some common sense behind them.

"Like ringing doorbells at night - it's not the kind of thing you want your neighbour to be doing. So although it's in rather anachronistic language, it's the kind of thing it's difficult to make a case for repealing."

Human rights

A malicious prosecution wouldn't succeed anyway, says Joshua Rozenberg, legal editor of the Daily Telegraph.

"The main safeguard is the Human Rights Act and other legislation usually has to be read in light of it, unless there's a conflict between the two and that's resolved by Parliament.

"The other way is that a prosecution, including a private one, can be stopped by the DPP and if someone were using this law maliciously or vexatiously, or even if they got a summons issued, it could be blocked.

Grievous bodily harm is a phrase you hear so often you think you know what it means
Joshua Rozenberg
"Therefore in practice there's little risk of it and the only reason these laws have survived the statute law revision team is that they've not been causing any harm."

Anyway, it's not the obsolete ones we should be worrying about, he says, it's the ancient laws which are used every day but need reform, like the archaic language of the Offences Against a Persons Act 1861.

Although the Law Commission wants to modernise the act's language, like "grievous bodily harm", there isn't parliamentary time, he says.

Ironically, some of that time is spent passing new acts, at a pace of about 40 to 50 every year. And for some of the laws of tomorrow, time on the statute books could be short.

Non-solicitors who want to visit the Law Society display should ring 020 7316 5724 or email lib-enq@lawsociety.org.uk to book.

Your comments:

In response to Jon Barker's comment, it was this law that made the English archers so effective against the French army during the battle of Agincourt. I suggest that you gather your friends and practice your archery in case we are ever atacked by the French again!
Andrew Lewis, Canterbury, Kent

While those laws may be out-dated, there are still ones in Western Canada like those I read. Specifically in the city of Calgary that requires one to have a hitching post outside of their business establishment, or if one is kicked out of the city, the accused is entitled a horse and a day's worth of rations to see them to the next city. Cowboy laws die hard out here
Les Champ, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

I'm fairly certain it is illegal to use bicycle lights that are not lit by a filament, making modern LED lights technically illegal. Considering that this was a law introduced to prevent people from lighting their bicycle lights with candles, however, it probably didn't seem a bad idea at the time.
David, Cambridge UK

Our history teacher told us it was still against the law to eat mince pies on Boxing Day - a spoilsport measure introduced in Oliver Cromwell's time. Is this true?
Stephanie , Pershore, UK

It is said that the Captain of School at Westminster is still legally entitled to drive sheep across Westminster Bridge and graze them on Parliament Square. Needless to say he is discouraged from exercising this privilege! I believe he is also entitled to spend his lessons smoking a pipe...
Alexander Asher, London, UK

Wasnt there a law that a "hackney carriage" had to carry a certain amount of hay? Which means every black cab in london is breaking the law. Send them to the tower!
jason drew, regina Canada

The law regarding being drunk in charge of a horse, reminds me of stories of my father when working on the farm in Withycombe, Somerset. With the nearest pub being in a neighbouring village, the local farmer would travel by horse and cart to the pub. Come closing time the farmer would be so drunk as to be unable to stand. The Landlord just put him in the cart and the horse knew its way home! Although I have heard it said that his wife would often just let him sleep it off in the cart!
Martin Wight, Chicago, USA

Having noticed Adam's story, I felt the urge to mention another ridiculous Cambridge University law....legend has it that if you turn up for your final exams on a white horse in a suit of armour, then you're automatically awarded a first. This apparently dates back to the Crusades, but I've yet to hear of anyone actually attempting it.
Kit, Norfolk

Section 28 of the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 also makes it an offence (punishable by 1000 fine) to sing any profane or obscene song or ballad, or use any profane or obscene language. I haven't seen that one being enforced recently! Equally, no more bonfire night festivities - section 28 provides for a 1000 fine for for anyone who sets fire to any firework!
Adrian, London, UK

I was once told a delightful story about a student at Cambridge University who took a pint of beer into his final exams. When the invigilator tried to stop him, he pulled out a 14th century University Statute which made it quite clear that each candidate was allowed a pint of ale, so they had to allow it. His result? He failed. Disqualified because he wasn't wearing a sword.
Adam, London, UK

There needs to be more information about laws we could 'fall foul of' but don't know anything about (ignorance is no defence). An ex-colleague, speedily riding a bike through the city centre was stopped by police and warned he could be prosecuted for "furious cycling" - who's ever heard of that !
Keith Woodhouse, Sheffield

I came across a fantastic old statute regarding the dropping of fruit peel in the streets of Woodstock. Strangely banana skins weren't singled out but citrus fruits were!
Hannah, Oxford

I have been told that if you are riding a bicycle and stopped by the Police and found to be over the drink-drive limit - you can be prosecuted under some archaic law, that states that you are not allowed to be drunk in charge of a horse. (Even walking the horse, not riding it)!
Foday , London

As a Welshman who may be visiting Chester for the evening shortly, can I say how relieved I am to see my life is indeed now safe. But it is the other don't do box that caught my attention. Students in Britain's universities are in serious trouble, as the words 'I bet you...' are used all the time in common language, every ski resort in the UK looks doomed now to close - but most importantly, every police officer at the Palace of Westminster and the Scottish / Welsh Legislatives are going to have to take off their bullet proof vests. These laws may be archaic now, but all it takes is a small change in political culture, and these laws re-emerge as draconian measures to bare down upon a minority... be they Gay, Muslim, Jew, or indeed Welshmen in Chester after Sunset
David Bourne, Aberystwyth

Being drunk in charge of a horse is not a law that no longer has relevance, considering the equine leisure industry, and private ownership of horses, is as buoyant as ever. People enjoy riding to a pub for a pub lunch!
James Jackson, Bristol

All total and utter nonsense - and the fact such laws remain just goes to show the lacklustre powers of the government and judicial review system in overhauling what 'real world' legislation is needed in today's mixed up world.
Mike, London UK

Can we get rid of some of the stupid, knee-jerk, ill-conceived, repressive laws that Tony and his goons have introduced please! (more than any other government in history I believe.)
Jim, Swindon

What do you mean we should abolish the law that makes sliding on snow illegal? This is political correctness gone mad!
Keith, London, UK

I've often heard that 'every able-bodied man between the ages of 16(17?) and 60(70) should practice archery at the local Butts (as in Reading 'Butts Centre') every Sunday after church' is still on the statute books. Is that true, please?
Jon Barker, Reading, UK

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