January 28, 2016 5:24 pm
Updated: January 28, 2016 8:18 pm

What are you doing with that salmon, sir? Some British laws outdated, others timeless

WATCH: England has 800 years worth of laws that are still in effect today. As a result, people there may have done something illegal without even knowing it. Jeff Semple has more on the renewed efforts to update the British law-books.


LONDON, England — It’s probably not a good idea to ride a cow down the street without permission or for politicians to enter parliament while wearing a suit of armour. But in England, this behaviour isn’t just strange — it’s actually illegal. Thanks to centuries of legislating by British Parliament, Britain’s law books have grown distinctly dense and unwieldy.

“We have a very old legislature that has, more or less, been continuously making laws for 800 years,” says David Connolly.

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He’s part of a small team of lawyers at the British Law Commission, who have been assigned the daunting task of reviewing and recommending statuTes for repeal.

Connolly says there are between 40,000 and 50,000 pieces of primary legislation on the books. The earliest statutes date back to the Middle Ages.

“You accumulate a lot of clutter,” he says. “These bits of law that have been left behind by history.”

Entire books and tourist attractions have been devoted to poking fun at the more ludicrous legal leftovers.

For example, it’s illegal to walk down a sidewalk carrying a plank of wood.

There’s also a statute forbidding the shaking or beating of any rug or carpet into the street — but only after 8:00 a.m.

According to a 14th century statute, if a whale carcass washes-up on the English coast — like three sperm whales did on Jan. 24 — the reigning monarch has first dibs (The Queen reportedly declined the latest offer).

And perhaps the fan favourite: it’s against the law to handle a salmon under “suspicious circumstances.”

“That’s a funny one,” laughs Connolly, who explains the law was actually written to prevent salmon-poaching. “So it’s a perfectly serious law just expressed in quirky language.” But, he adds, the quirky laws can present a serious problem. “What you have is a lot of white noise, which can make getting at what the law really is problematic.”

Police rarely enforce the outdated laws. But occasionally, some have been prone to misuse or abuse.

Connolly says there have been cases of squatters using centuries-old property law to claim ownership of abandoned homes.

In 2014, the British Foreign Secretary sparked controversy after threatening to charge Islamic State militants under the treason act of 1351.

“You couldn’t have expected something like ISIS in 1351,” chuckles legal history expert Ian Williams. “It’s a very peculiar thing to try and handle using a medieval statute. The treason act is really designed for rebellious nobles and their supporters. Or to prevent someone from having sex with the king’s wife.”

What excites legal historians most isn’t the silly surviving statutes but rather the centuries’ old laws that remain remarkably relevant and practical today.

Many of Britain’s current criminal, elections and anti-poaching laws were written 150 years ago.

The statute of Marlborough, from 1267, is the oldest on the record.

The British Law Commission is recommending the government repeal two of its chapters; two others, including a chapter which forbids an individual from seeking revenge for debt non-payment, will remain in effect.

“Certain problems just don’t change that much,” says Williams.

Nor, it seems, does certain human behaviour.

A man from Newcastle recently pleaded guilty to an offence that’s been illegal since 1872: riding his horse while drunk.

It turns out some laws are timeless.

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