It is spring in the northern hemisphere, and spring cleaning can take many forms. In a fit of legal hygiene, the UK is removing nearly a thousand laws from its statute books – making the world a duller but perhaps safer place.

It makes sense to repeal statutes providing for the establishment of companies (for Indian railways, say) that disappeared long ago. But surely a new use can be found for some of the old laws. Take the Streets (London) Act of 1696, which tells London residents to sweep the street in front of their houses on Wednesday and Saturday mornings or be fined 10 shillings. The Law Commission wants it repealed as London Boroughs are now in charge of street cleaning. But with council grants being cut, a bit of private cleanliness cannot hurt.

Or consider the acts allowing for road tolls – such as the Fulham Roads Acts of 1730 – to finance roadworks. While this is now paid for by the government, surely the authority to charge tolls could be used for a road-pricing system. Instead of scrapping such laws, how useful – and how British – it would be to build on them to make them suit today’s needs.

If legal weeding can be taken to an excess, it is also dangerous to let sleeping laws lie. Ten years ago, Leon Humphreys invoked his ancient right to trial by combat instead of paying a £25 fine to the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency. This would have required the DVLA to put up a champion to fight Mr Humphreys – potentially to the death. As the DVLA is a government agency, this would presumably have been the hereditary holder of the office of the Queen’s Champion: the head of the Dymoke family of Scrivelsby. Fortunately for the Dymokes, parliament abolished trial by combat in 1819 – illustrating the importance of culling dangerous laws.

That was too late to affect the US, which inherited UK jurisprudence on independence. US legislatures may want their own spring cleaning before a peeved American should try Mr Humphreys’ route.

Get alerts on South Asia when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article