Law Commission Report Wants ‘Dead’ Laws Repealed

The Law Commission1 recommended at the beginning of this month that more than 800 old laws be removed from the statute books. The recommendations cover laws on poor relief, lotteries, turnpikes and Indian railways. The oldest legislation dates back to 1322 (Statutes of the Exchequer), and the most recent is part of a Taxation Act from 2010. This is the largest of the Law Commission’s reports (there have been 18 others to date) on removing outdated laws. It is likely that their recommended Statutory Law (Repeal) Bill will be accepted by Parliament this summer as (another!) law on the statute books. 

If you have studied the Legal Secretaries Diploma course, you may recall learning about the lengthy process followed in order to create laws. Because of the challenging nature of creating legislation and the sheer number of laws on the statute books, it is not surprising that over time a lot of “statutory dead wood”2 builds up and clutters our law books.

Removing old laws helps to simplify our laws and make them more intelligible. Lawyers and citizens can find themselves wasting time trying to figure out what is or is not legal; formally repealing meaningless or “dead” laws helps provide access to justice for all.

The absurdity of some out-of- date laws is highlighted by provisions such as a Maintenance of Artillery Act from the 15th century, requiring all men between ages 7 and 17 to assemble on a Sunday in town and village squares for archery practice (repealed in 1960).

Performance artist Mark McGowan staged his own protest about a law he felt was outdated, by eating a swan (a “royal” bird that is property of the queen and protected under the Swan Act 1788 and now the Wild Creatures and Forest Law Act 1971). You can still see the news broadcast on his protest at the following link:
Although there is no mention of repealing the queen’s right to royal swans, which is understandable in the year of her Diamond Jubilee, examples of other laws that are for the chop include:

  • A 1696 act to fund the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of London
  • An 1800 act to hold a lottery to win the Pigot Diamond
  • 38 acts for railway companies in British India and the East Indies
  • 16 acts passed between 1798 and 1828 relating to duty on alcohol in parts of Scotland
  • 57 acts regarding the poor
  • 40 Dublin acts passed before Ireland’s partition in 1921
  • An 1856 act to help imprisoned debtors secure early release

Whilst it may seem unlikely that any of these acts would cause unexpected legal problems beyond general untidiness of the law, that is not always the case. Take the Chancel Repairs Act 1932, a stark example of an old act that had wholly unexpected modern-day legal consequences. Before 2003 it would be fair to say that most people including lawyers had no idea of the liability some properties could have for the repair of a church chancel.3 In a House of Lords case that year, Andrew and Gail Wallbank, were liable for a bill of over £350,000 because of this “forgotten” act. As a result of this case, conveyancing procedure throughout the country was changed, as was the law itself, but this was too late to help the Wallbanks.  

If the Wallbanks’ case is not a powerful enough reason for the law to be regularly checked for its relevance to modern-day life, then perhaps Sir James Munby, chairman of the Law Commission for England & Wales, best sums up the need for the Law Commission’s work:
“We are committed to ridding the statute book of meaningless provisions from days gone by and making sure our laws are relevant to the modern world.”

1) The Law Commission is the statutory independent body created by the Law Commissions Act 1965 to keep the law under review and to recommend reform where it is needed.

2) This term is attributed to Sir James Munby, chairman of the Law Commission for England & Wales.

3) The chancel is the space around the altar in the sanctuary of a church.