Britain's legal loopholes unplugged

Britain’s legal system is a product of centuries creation, modification and destruction, and our rich legal history contains many examples of legislation with a slightly strange or odd angle to it. Here we look at some of the most notable cases that changed the law in the UK

  • Last updated Jul 9, 2019 5:36:42 PM
  • By Jan Hill
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Affordable housing in rural England

Developers are legally required to provide a proportion of affordable homes where they are needed most—around 30%—in any new development. However, many use legal loopholes known as viability assessments to cut that number down, insisting that the requirement reduces their profit margins below 20%, the point at which they have the legal right to negotiate and reduce the number of affordable homes they are required to build.

In 2017, Shelter and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) found that the viability assessments used in 11 local authorities across England resulted in 79% fewer affordable homes in urban England, and one year later, a CPRE analysis found that the same problem exists in rural areas where half the affordable homes required were actually built. Because of this legal loophole, local residents are being priced out of the housing market.

According to Polly Neate, Shelter’s chief executive, “Developers are using this legal loophole to overpower local communities and are refusing to build the affordable homes they need.” Despite the growing affordability gap, developers are still being allowed to exploit this loophole, resulting in affordable housing being reduced to less than 1% of all the homes being built in Manchester, Birmingham and parts of London, according to one report.

Fish Laws, royal and otherwise

Initially passed in 1322, the ancient Royal Fish law is thought to have been the result of King Edward II’s desire to control the levels of “overly conspicuous consumption” in the country, but it has come into play as recently as 2004, when a fisherman caught a nine-pound sturgeon off the coast of Wales. 

He dutifully offered it to the Queen, but she declined, telling him instead to “dispose of the fish as he saw fit”. The fisherman later became the subject of a criminal investigation based upon the fact that sturgeon are a protected species in England, and it’s a criminal offence to deliberately catch or kill them. The sturgeon he caught, named Stanley, now lives at London’s Natural History Museum. 

The government official appointed to take possession of royal fish in the UK is the Receiver of Wreck (RoW), Alison Kentuck. Despite the controversy it occasionally creates, the law of royal fish remains in effect. Under current legislation, it’s against the law to retain, land, transport, sell or exchange common sturgeon, although in 2012 the Queen created a loophole by granting KC Caviar permission to farm the royal sturgeon fish. 

Although not deemed “royal fish”, salmon are also protected in Britain under the Salmon Act of 1986, which regulates salmon fishery and makes it illegal to “handle a salmon in suspicious circumstances”. The maximum penalty under this Act, which is aimed to reduce salmon poaching, is two years in prison.

No Polish potatoes in Britain—without advance notice

A poor potato crop in the UK led importers to search for other spud sources, particularly Poland. However, because of a massive outbreak of ring rot in Polish potatoes, the Polish Potatoes Order 2004 bans the import of Polish potatoes into Britain without first notifying the authorities. 

Now for the loophole: an exception will be made if notification is given to an inspector at least two days before the potatoes are to be brought into the country, if the following information is provided:

• The proposed date, time and means of potato introduction;

• The proposed point of entry for the spuds;

• The intended use of the potatoes;

• The proposed destination of the potatoes;

• The variety and quantity of potatoes;

• The producer’s identification number.

In 2012, the law was reinforced by the Food and Environment Research Agency, which demanded that a ring rot test certificate accompany the potatoes.

Have the plague? No taxi rides for you

According to Section 25 of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act of 1984, anyone with the plague, cholera, relapsing fever, smallpox and typhus is forbidden from riding in a taxi or other public conveyance without first notifying the driver. The provision, which dates back to the mid-19th century, was aimed at controlling the spread of disease.

Critics of the legislation say it’s overdue for review since it’s not consistent with today’s scientific knowledge and would likely not stand up to a challenge brought under the Human Rights Act of 1998, since it would be very difficult for the government to make the argument that the exercise of these powers is necessary or least of all effective against the spread of disease. But despite these and other concerns, the law stands as it was written.

It is illegal to be drunk in a pub… and when in charge of horses, carriages, cattle or steam engines

Enacted as Section 12 of the 1872 Licensing Act during the Victorian era, presumably to promote lower levels of drinking, this law is still in effect today. The Act applies to “any highway or other public place, whether a building or not”, but explicitly mentions “any place to which the public have access whether on payment or otherwise”, and anyone found drunk in one could be slapped with a £200 fine. This law is still in force today, likely as a means to discourage public drunkenness.

You can also be fined for attempting to buy a drunken friend a drink: "It is an offence for a person to knowingly get, or try to get, alcohol for a drunken person on licensed premises." If you are caught doing so, you could be hit with a £1000 fine, which would definitely ruin an evening of drinking for most people.

Also under Section 12 of the 1872 Licensing Act, it’s against the law to be drunk while in charge of cattle, horses, carriages and steam engines, and while possessing a loaded firearm in England and Wales. Caught doing any of these things while drunk, the offender could be looking at a find and/or imprisonment of up to one month.

No moving taxis allowed

Under Section 33 of the London Hackney Carriages Act of 1843, even if a licensed taxi has its “for hire” light illuminated, the driver is only allowed to accept a fare when at a standstill. So why aren’t all taxi drivers in jail, and why do they have that orange light in the first place?

It seems that the police have come to an understanding that a moving taxi with its light on is not officially “plying for hire”, as the Act forbids, and it’s only when the taxi driver pulls over to the curb and stops that he’s broadcasting his availability. Sounds like another loophole!

Crimes under the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839

According to the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839, it’s illegal to beat or shake any carpet, rug or mat (door mats excluded) before 8am in the Metropolitan Police District. Under the same law, it’s also a crime to:

• “Cherry knock” on someone’s door and run away without a lawful reason

• Fire a cannon within 300 yards of a dwelling

• Fly a kite or play games to the annoyance of others

• Make slides upon ice or snow to the danger of pedestrians

• Drive carts on the footway 

• Roll or carry any cask, tub, hoop, wheel, ladder, plank, pole, showboat or placard upon any footway in London 

Although many of the provisions of this Act seem rather trivial by today’s standards, the law was actually intended to enlarge the district of the Metropolitan Police as established by the Metropolitan Police Act of 1929, and also greatly increase its powers. Before the 19th century, there were no state funded police forces in Britain, but with the passage of the 1939 Act, constables of the Metropolitan Police had expanded jurisdiction within the counties of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, on the River Thames within or bordering Middlesex, Surrey, Berkshire, Essex, Kent and in London. 

No suits of armour in Parliament

The 1313 Statute Forbidding Bearing of Armour or Coming Armed to Parliament Act 1313 was seen as King Edward II’s attempt to hold back his nobles’ propensity to use the threat of armed force to exert pressure in the Houses of Parliament. The statute was enacted following a period of intense political turmoil in England, culminated in the declaration of the Ordinances of 1311, a set of regulations imposed on the king by the English aristocracy and clergy in an effort to limit his power. 

Although this law is still in effect today, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has said that no one has been prosecuted under its provisions in recent times. “If anyone was caught in the Houses of Parliament wearing armour it would first be a matter for the police,” according to a CPS spokeswoman.

Never a vagrant or a borrower be

Because of a huge number of war veterans, along with Irish and Scottish immigrants, who travelled to London to find work after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the Vagrancy Act of 1824 made it illegal to “sleep rough” or ask for money in a public place. Although it’s not punishable by time in jail and isn’t enforced in many cities throughout the UK, the Act applies in all public places and is enforced more frequently on public transport. Originally the Act applied only to England and Wales, but Section 4, which dealt mainly with vagrancy and begging, was extended to Scotland and Ireland in 1871.

Under the Vagrancy Act, anyone caught sleeping in a public place or trying to beg for money can be arrested, although Sections 3 and 4 were repealed by the Vagrancy Offences (Repeal) Act 1981, which decriminalised begging in all circumstances. The entire Act was repealed in Scotland in 1982, and Section 4 was repealed in 1990 in Ireland.

Don’t doodle on bank notes

Pursuant to the Currency and Banknotes Act 1928 , defacing money (printing or writing on it) is illegal in the UK, although burning money is not a crime. The rationale for this law, which remains on the books, is that defaced banknotes can stay in circulation, whereas burned money would obviously have no value and cannot be used to purchase anything anyway, so why make a law against it?

In 2016, broadcaster Piers Morgan caused quite a stir when he ripped a plastic £5 bank note on a live broadcast of Good Morning Britain, prompting some to say he had broken the law after tearing up the note, although the Bank of England clarified that ripping up money is not against the law in the UK.

A legal dress code

Some who are invited to a costume or dress-up party might consider going as a sailor or a soldier, but this would have been illegal in Great Britain prior to 2008, where the Seamen’s and Soldiers’ False Characters Act of 1906 prevented people from trying to pass themselves off as members of the armed forces. Under the provisions of the Act, one could have been fined and sent to prison for up to three months for attempting to “personate the holder of a certificate of service or discharge”.

Beware of the common scold

Not all of the UK’s strangest laws have stood the test of time. Until 1967, it was illegal to be a “common scold” in England. Punishment for this offence was often a stint in the “ducking chair” or “cucking chair”, which involved the offender being secured in a chair that was suspended over a body of water and repeatedly dunked underneath it. Alternate punishments included the wearing of the scold’s bridle.

Despite an 1888 government paper criticising this crime and referring to it as an “antiquated offence”, it took another 80 years for this “obsolete crime” to be abolished by Section 13 of the Criminal Law Act 1967. Being a common scold was even against the law in the US, where there were several reported cases of the crime committed in the late 1800s.

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