6 Myths and Realities of British Law

There are no end of myths circulating about British law.

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Some myths are actively harmful – for instance, the idea that there is such a thing as ‘common-law marriage’ in British law has left some unmarried but cohabiting couples in financial difficulties. Others are just a bit silly, such as the notion that it’s illegal to be within 300m of the monarch with no socks on. These are often reported as true in lists of ‘weird British laws’ or similar alongside laws that do exist, such as the fact that it’s illegal to sound a car horn aggressively – which anyone who has passed their driving test ought to know.
Myths arise easily because British law is complicated, so disproving them is hard. The complications are as a result of the country’s unique history. For one, there are four set of laws: laws that apply across the entire United Kingdom, laws that apply only in Scotland, laws that apply only in Northern Ireland, and laws that apply only in England and Wales. That’s because what’s now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was created over centuries by the union of other countries, and while their legal systems were adapted, much of their original laws stayed intact. This can lead to significant differences – for instance, in a matter as commonplace as making a Will, Wills in England and Wales require the signatures of two witnesses, Scottish Wills require just one. Each of those legal systems rests on different principles.
Furthermore, in other countries, gaining independence or radically changing the political system (for instance, following a revolution) has led to the legal system being built from scratch. British law, by contrast, has been updated and amended over the centuries, so there are sometimes odd survivors from the past, or myths about laws that have long since been taken off the statute books. In this article, we take a look at the fact and fiction of British law, where the truth can sometimes be just as weird as the myths.

1. It’s illegal to die in Parliament

How does one prevent it happening in the wrong place?

This myth is sometimes justified with the claim that anyone who dies in Parliament is legally entitled to a state funeral, so in order to avoid the associated costs, dying in Parliament was simply banned. Like many such myths, this doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny – if this was such a problem, why not simply repeal the (non-existent) law about entitlement to a state funeral?
It’s also hard to argue that this would be particularly expensive. It’s true that state funerals aren’t cheap – while the last one took place in 1965 so we don’t have any up-to-date figures, it’s likely that the cost would be in the region of £3-5 million (or approximately the running costs of a state school for a year). However, much of that is a result of policing costs, which would be rather less significant for an unknown person who just happened to die in the wrong place.
And these costs might not amount to much over time, as remarkably few people have died in Parliament. The Law Commission’s Statute Law Repeals team came up with only four known examples, two of whom were executed plotters from the Gunpowder Plot, rather than natural deaths. There was only one in the whole of the 20th century, namely the MP for North West Staffordshire, Sir Alfred Billson, who died while voting on a sugar tax in 1907. He did not receive a state funeral.

2. It’s legal to murder a Welshman or a Scotsman, provided the circumstances are sufficiently unlikely

No matter what the circumstances, it’s still illegal.

There are a plethora of variations on this myth. Sometimes it’s that it’s legal to murder a Welshman, provided it’s with a crossbow fired from the city walls of Chester. Sometimes it’s a Scotsman within the city walls of York, and the weapon of choice is a longbow. Sometimes the location chosen is Hereford, and it also can’t be a Sunday. Sometimes this myth is dressed up as “it used to be illegal…”. But in all cases, luckily for the Scottish and the Welsh, it’s entirely untrue.
That people are so keen to repeat myths about murder of the Scottish or Welsh being legal under whatever overly specific circumstances possibly says something worrying about our national psyche. The English have, of course, been at war with the Scottish and the Welsh at various points in our history, and at times of war it would be have been legal to kill enemy combatants. But murder ‘under the Queen’s peace’ is illegal under common law and has been for time immemorial. The UK is also a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, which affirms that “everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law” – regardless of whether or not they’re Welsh or a crossbow was involved.

3. It’s illegal to damage an image of the Queen

Turning Ma’am upside down won’t do her any harm.

This myth is usually evoked in relation to putting a stamp on a letter upside down, or doodling a moustache on the picture of a Queen on a banknote. The suggestion is that damaging an image of the Queen amounts to treason, and so putting a stamp on a letter the wrong way round may be punishable by death.
A remarkable number of legal myths relate to one or both of the Royal Family and the death penalty, usually arguing that the death penalty could still be enacted under this mythical law, usually for something trivial. The death penalty was only abolished completely for treason in 1998, so it is possible that this is a hangover from textbooks that are in need of updating. The European Convention on Human Rights that stops us from murdering the Welsh with crossbows also stops us from reintroducing the death penalty.
The idea that damaging an image of the Queen is treasonous seems to come from a confusion of two different laws. The first is that it’s illegal to deface a banknote, though the penalty is a fine of £200, unlike life imprisonment for treason. The reason for this law is probably a combination of factors, including making it harder for counterfeiters and wanting to maximise the lifetime of notes in circulation (as printing new banknotes is an expensive business). Entirely destroying a banknote is legal, because that destroys its value while a defaced banknote remains in circulation.
The second law is that it’s illegal to perform any act with the intention of deposing the monarch. If you defaced lots of images of the Queen by writing the words ‘Kill the Queen’ across them – and, say, distributing them across London – you might come close to falling foul of this, if anyone took you seriously. Putting a stamp on a letter upside-down would not have the same impact.

4. It’s illegal to give someone a bad reference

Legal, but not necessarily advisable.

This is a legal myth that may have saved some people’s careers. It’s entirely legal to give someone a bad reference, but it may not always be advisable. That’s because a false statement that harms someone’s reputation (such as “don’t hire Jim, he’s not a team player and is very unreliable”) is treated as defamatory, and would given Jim grounds to sue, especially if he loses out on his new job as a result. The law doesn’t relate specifically to references, but that’s one of the areas in which defamation law touches most often on ordinary people’s lives.
The UK also has defamation laws that are famously kind to the person being defamed, unlike other countries where, for instance, freedom of speech considerations might be prioritised. This gave rise to the concept of ‘libel tourism’, where those who had been defamed in print pursued their cases in the UK because they believed they would have a better chance of winning. The Defamation Act 2013 was intended to rebalance this somewhat, but legal myths take more than a few years to go away.
If you do feel compelled to give someone a bad reference, note that the Defamation Act 2013 has the defences of truth and honest opinion. If Jim is actually a model employee and you give him a bad reference, he may well be able to sue you for defamation (and rightly so). But if you can prove that he was late more often than he was on time, and you honestly believe he’s not a team player, then you should be on safer ground.

5. It’s illegal to take an unattended parcel or abandoned baggage

The point is whether or not you intended to steal it.

It’s become the norm in railway stations and airports to hear warnings about not leaving your baggage unattended, and reporting any unattended baggage. But what about if you find something abandoned on the street, or if you take in a parcel for a neighbour? Is it illegal to take it?
This myth is usually rephrased in various ways that make it sound completely unreasonable, such as “it’s illegal to look after your neighbour’s parcel” or “it’s illegal to pick up a penny in the street.” The law here – as is so often the case – just reflects common sense. The relevant crime is that of ‘theft by finding’. As with almost all crimes, you have to have an actus reus (the guilty deed) and a mens rea (the guilty mind – or the intent to commit the crime).
Let’s say a parcel delivery company has called round and asked if your neighbour is in. You say you don’t think so, and offer to look after the parcel for them. You go round to your neighbour’s house to try to reunite them with the parcel, but they never answer the door. They also never call round to your house to ask for it. So you keep the parcel. De facto, you have stolen it from them; but as there was no mens rea – you didn’t intend to steal it – you haven’t committed a crime. If you find something and fail to reunite it with its owner despite your best attempts, no crime has been committed. That’s why it’s a crime to keep a banknote that you found on the floor next to someone’s bag (as it could well have been theirs, and you should have checked) but not to keep a banknote that you find in the middle of a field with no indication of whose it might be.

6. It’s legal for pregnant women to relieve themselves in a policeman’s helmet

The helmet won’t be offered, but a bush might suffice.

This popular and enduring legal myth has no foundation in fact. Myths about urination are popular, such as the one that suggests that if someone knocks on your door in Scotland and requests to use the toilet, you are bound by law to let them enter. This might have been a local custom, but it’s definitely not a law. With the exception of the police and bailiffs under certain circumstances, in the UK you don’t have to let anyone into your house. That’s even the case if it’s the landlord, unless they have given you notice in writing first.
But beyond the hospitable people of Scotland, everyone’s favourite legal myth is the one that pregnant women have the right to relieve themselves in a policeman’s helmet; this is seldom written as ‘police officer’, presumably on the basis that it’s funnier if you imagine the officer relinquishing his helmet as male. Sadly, it’s not true. The 1986 Public Order Act makes ‘disorderly behaviour’ in England and Wales punishable with a fine, and urinating in public is definitely disorderly (thank goodness).
That said, the law is not unreasonable. One of the unpleasant realities of pregnancy is that the growing baby presses on the bladder at the same time as pregnancy hormones stimulate the kidneys to expand and produce more urine, leading to pregnant women needing to urinate more often and more urgently than everyone else. Taking this into account, the Law Commission notes that the Public Order Act doesn’t have a specific exemption for pregnant women, but that “discretion not to charge might be exercised if a pregnant woman were caught short in public.” For a policeman to offer up his helmet, though, might be above and beyond what was required.
Images: parliament; bow and arrows; bad reference; parcel delivery; pregnant woman; funny socks; policeman getting tea