Consigned to history – 2d duty on beer and 15-day wait for execution

HUNDREDS of obscure laws which date back as far as the 14th century should be swept away in a bid to clear up the statute book, it has been claimed.

A joint report by the Law Commission for England and Wales and Scottish Law Commission said there are as many as 817 entire acts and sections of a further 50 that need repealed.

The oldest, dating from around 1322, regulated how animals should be taken to pay the king’s debts, including details on how they should be fed, cared for and sold, and what livestock should be exempt.

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The most recent provision recommended for the scrapheap in the 19th Statute Law (Repeals) Bill is a tax provision from 2010.

Examples of redundant laws applied to Scotland include 16 acts passed between 1798 and 1828 to tax pints of ale, beer or bitter to raise funds for public works.

Sir James Munby, chairman of the Law Commission for England and Wales, said: “Getting rid of statutory deadwood helps simplify and modernise our law, making it more intelligible.

“It saves time and costs for lawyers and others who need to know what the law actually is, and makes it easier for citizens to access justice. We are committed to ridding the statute book of meaningless provisions from days gone by and making sure our laws are relevant to the modern world.”

The move is the largest repeals bill the two commissions have ever produced and is expected to be introduced to parliament this summer. Among other provisions destined to be scrapped are an 1856 act to help anyone imprisoned over debts secure their early release from jail.

The Marshalsea, on the south bank of the Thames in Southwark, London, was one of the more well-known “debtors’ prisons” whose inmates famously included Charles Dickens’ father.

A group dubbed the Thatched House Society was set up to help secure debtors’ early release. But as demand for its work fell, the Imprisoned Debtors Discharge Society’s Act 1856 was brought in to enable the society “to apply any or all of its surplus income to such other charities as the society thought fit”.

But yesterday’s report said: “The abolition of imprisonment for debt brought about by the Debtors Act 1869 appears to have prompted the demise of the society: there is no evidence to indicate that it continued thereafter. As a result the 1856 act is now long spent and is ripe for repeal.”

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Law Commission said: “The importance of Statute Law (Repeals) Acts is that they remove unnecessary clutter. This helps simplify and modernise the law, making it more intelligible and saving the time of lawyers and others who need to know what the law actually is.”

Among the other laws earmarked for repeal are an 1800 act to hold a lottery to win the £30,000 Pigot Diamond after its owners failed to sell it because its value, “the equal of any known diamond in Europe”, was too great. There is also an act from 1696 to fund the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of 1666, and a 1710 act to raise coal duty to pay for 50 new churches in London. A further 38 obsolete acts relate to rail companies operating in British India and the wider East Indies.

Section 2 of the Criminal Law (Scotland) Act 1830

Cut the period that had to elapse between a guilty verdict and execution from 30 days to 15 for sentences pronounced in “Edinburgh and south of the Firth”, and from 40 days to 20 for sentences “north of the Firth”.

Series of acts for railways projects

Lapsed due to lack of money or other reasons; they include the Glencairn Railway, the Rhins of Galloway Railway, the Clyde Ardrishaig and Crinan Railway and the Motherwell and Bellshill Railway plans.

Sixteen separate “Two Pennies Scots Acts”

These allowed for a tuppence (2d, or denari) duty “on every pint of ale and beer” sold in towns including Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow to pay for public works and were in use from 1798 to 1828.