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Common Legal Myths in UK Law

From the superficially trivial to the downright dangerous

by Fatima Freifer

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British Law is dotted with eccentric legislature and testament to its slew of political and historical struggles which eventually made way to the governing system we have in place now. A lot of these myths are widely held as fact by  much of the population and have been steeped in history. Erroneous nonetheless amusing, we will go through a selection of them in greater detail.

It is illegal to die in parliament

There’s a long-held belief that you can’t “die” in parliament because the government would be required to pay for a public burial, which is a misguided conception. On the contrary, at least four people have died in the Houses of Parliament, including Guy Fawkes, who was executed on the spot, so this swiftly debunks the notion.

The Law Commission’s Statute Law Repeals team, which has been responsible for repealing 2,000 obsolete laws since 1965, claims that dying in the Houses of Parliament is not unlawful [1]. The team also says that it has not found any statute indicating that death in a royal palace is grounds for a state funeral, and neither have the House of Commons authority on such affairs.

It is permissible to shoot a Welshman with a longbow on Sunday in Hereford’s Cathedral Close, or inside the city walls of Chester after midnight, or a Scotsman within the city walls of York on any other day except Sunday

There are several variations of this myth. It is sometimes permissible to murder a Welshman, as long as it is done with a crossbow fired from the city walls of Chester. Within the city walls of York, it is sometimes a Scotsman, and the weapon of choice is a longbow. Sometimes the site is Hereford, and it cannot be on a Sunday. This myth is sometimes pertained to have been as “it used to be prohibited…” But, fortunately for the Scots and Welsh, it is completely false in all circumstances and from whichever perspective you look at it upon.

That people are so eager to perpetuate falsehoods like murdering Scots or Welsh people being permissible under too precise circumstances may reveal something concerning about many’s mindsets, or rather a dark sense of humour harboured by centuries of competition and resentment. Of course, the English have been at war with the Scots and the Welsh at various points throughout our history, and it would have been permissible to murder enemy fighters during times of war which may go some way to understanding the notion. Murder ‘under the Queen’s peace,’ on the other hand, is and has always been unlawful under common law.

In addition to this, The Law Commission couldn’t find any evidence that any of these laws ever existed. They stated: “It is illegal to shoot a Welsh or Scottish (or any other) person regardless of the day, location, or choice of weaponry” [2].

It is illegal to place a stamp of the Queen upside down on a letter

This myth is frequently used in regard to positioning a stamp on a letter upside down or defacing a banknote with an image of a Queen. According to the assumption, vandalising an image of the Queen is treason, and so placing a stamp on a letter the wrong way round may be punishable by death.

The notion that causing harm to the Queen’s image is disloyal appears to stem from a misunderstanding of two distinct statutes. The first, a true statute, is that defacing a banknote is unlawful, albeit the penalty is a £200 fine rather than life imprisonment for treason. The motivation for this regulation is most likely a combination of considerations, including making counterfeiting more difficult and trying to maximise the lifespan of notes in circulation (as printing new banknotes is an expensive business). It is permissible to destroy a banknote because doing so removes its value, whereas a disfigured banknote continues in circulation.

The second statute is false. A startling number of legal myths revolve around one or both Royal Families and the death sentence, generally suggesting that the death penalty may still be imposed under this fictitious statute, usually for petty offences. The death sentence for treason was only abolished fully in 1998, thus it’s conceivable that this is a holdover from outdated history books [3].

All swans are the Queen’s property, and killing one is an act of treason

Contrary to common perception, the Queen does not possess all of the swans in England; however, she does own the majority of them. The Queen has had first dibs on any “wild, unmarked mute swans in open water” since the 12th century, but only on the Thames and its tributaries. It’s unlawful to murder one of them, but it’s not treason and the Queen has no claim on tame swans, or other types of swans.

Outside of the royal family, only the fellows of St John’s, Cambridge, are permitted to hunt and consume unmarked mute swans. While the origins of this intellectual privilege are unknown, swan traps have been placed into the college’s walls along the river. Fortunately for the swans, these are no longer utilised, and there has been no record of swans being eaten at St John’s since 1896, according to St John’s [4].

It’s illegal to give someone a bad reference

This is a legal misconception that may have preserved the careers of certain individuals. It’s perfectly legal to offer someone a terrible reference, but it’s not necessarily a stellar idea. That’s largely due to the fact that a false remark that changes someone’s reputation adversely (such as referring to said employee as unreliable or tardy) is considered defamatory, and the party may sue as a result, especially if one experiences the result of the action, such as losing a job offer.

The law does not expressly address references, although this is one of the areas in which defamation law has the biggest impact on regular people’s lives. In addition, the UK has defamation rules that are notably sympathetic to the individual being defamed. This gave birth to the notion of ‘libel tourism,’ in which people who had been defamed in print pursued their claims in the UK, believing they would have a higher chance of prevailing [5].

Conclusion

Whilst the majority of these laws are testament to a bygone era, it also demonstrates the progression of political development and heralded for the demonstrable and relatively stable state of affairs lauded globally today.

References

[1] 6 Myths and Realities of British Law, https://www.oxford-royale.com/articles/6-myths-realities-british-law/

[2] 6 Myths and Realities of British Law, https://www.oxford-royale.com/articles/6-myths-realities-british-law/

[3] On fantasy island: the seven myths undermining human rights in the UK today, A Small, 2014, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/humanrights/2014/11/10/on-fantasy-island-the-seven-myths-undermining-human-rights-in-the-uk-today/

[4] Does the Queen Really Own All the Swans in England?, R,Carroll, 2018, https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/england/articles/does-the-queen-really-own-all-the-swans-in-england/

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