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Interview: John Saunders - Law Commission

Interview: John Saunders - Law Commission

Law Commission | Law Commission

5 min read Partner content

John Saunders, statute law repeals manager at the Law Commission, speaks to ePolitix.com about the latest Statute Law Repeals Bill.

Question: Why is it necessary to review the statute book?

John Saunders: Firstly, to highlight current law by exposing out-of-date law; secondly, to reduce the size of the statute book; and thirdly, to save the time and money of lawyers and anyone else who has to understand what the statute book is all about. In other words, it is important to review the statute book to remove the clutter of out-of-date material that no longer serves any purpose.

Question: Why do laws change?

John Saunders: Laws themselves don't change but society does. The rate of social, economic and political change is such that laws tend to get out-of-date really quite quickly. Over a 30-year period, a large part of any modern statute is liable to be obsolete. This may be because the purpose for which the Act was passed no longer exists or because the Act has been overtaken by more modern legislation.

Question: How do you decide if a law is out-of-date?

John Saunders:There are several questions that need asking to determine if a law is out-of-date. We ask ourselves what purpose a law serves. We ask if Parliament today would wish to enact the law in its present form and if not why not? We ask if the law has been superseded. It is the answers to these questions that tell you if an Act is no longer as necessary as it used to be.

Question: Has anyone ever seriously objected to the Law Commission’s proposals to repeal a law?

John Saunders:Yes, this does happen sometimes. One example happened shortly after the Law Commission was founded in the mid-1960s. The Law Commission applied to repeal an ancient property law and this was opposed by the Chancery Bar and the Treasury Solicitor because they pointed out that these laws were necessary to maintain the modern structure of conveyancing and land law.

More recently, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs asked us not to repeal some legislation passed during the Second World War to tax excess profits because they felt these laws were still needed. In both cases, we gave way gracefully.

Question: What are some of the laws you have put forward for repeal in this latest bill?

John Saunders:There are six Acts to finance the building of workhouses in the London area, including an 1819 Act to build the workhouse in Wapping mentioned by Charles Dickens in The Uncommercial Traveller.

There are 50 obsolete turnpike Acts relating to the building and repair of roads in the home counties in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. They reflect a time when roads were maintained locally, with travellers having to pay a toll to cross a turnpike.

There are also 12 Acts relating to the affairs of the East India Company, covering the period 1796 to 1832; the company actually ceased to trade in 1874.

My favourite this time round is an 1839 law requiring street musicians in the City of London to leave the neighbourhood if ordered to do so by any householder irritated by their music, with a penalty of 40 shillings for failing to comply. The law was aimed at the Victorian annoyance of street organs and brass bands. It gave householders the right to demand that anyone playing under their window should go and do so in the next street instead!

Question: What are the negative effects of having an out-of-date law in the statute book?

John Saunders:There is always the danger that by leaving an out-of-date law in the statute book you may give it a new life, unintended by Parliament. One example of this is an 1889 Act to regulate the operation of horse-drawn omnibuses in London and other areas.

It was intended only for horse-drawn omnibuses. However, the wording used was 'non-motorised public transport' and so the Act has since been used to license pedal rickshaws in Oxford and other places.

This is an example of a power given by Parliament for one purpose, not repealed but then picked up subsequently and used for an entirely different purpose, one which Parliament had never thought about and probably would not have approved of.

Question: How long does the Statute Law Repeals Bill normally take to receive Royal Assent?

John Saunders:About six months. This bill will be introduced shortly and subject to parliamentary approval, it will probably receive royal assent by July.

It is quite a rapid process. It has a streamlined procedure whereby most of the stages are taken off the floor of the House and a joint committee of peers and MPs considers the bill in detail, which saves time.

Question: What is the strangest law to be repealed to date?

John Saunders:The strangest one we have repealed was a provision in the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. It is quite a short provision but it penalised publicans "who knowingly harbour or entertain members of the Metropolitan police force whilst on duty".

The newly formed police force did not want its officers to spend their time in the pub and rather than put a duty on them not to go into the pub, the publicans who served them knowingly could be penalised. I thought this was rather an enjoyable example.

Question: Do you have any final comments?

John Saunders:The work is a joint product of the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission and a report and bill are produced roughly every four years. We are at the end of the four-year cycle now and about to start the next one, with another bill in four years' time.

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