I put this up as a Samizdata quote of the day, before realising that there already was one. Sorry. But, it’s good and deserves plentiful copying and pasting, so here is that posting rehashed, with the quote in question as its starting point:
So, yet again, the courts are faced with a sample of the deeply confusing provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, and the satellite Statutory Instruments to which it is giving stuttering birth. The most inviting course for this Court to follow, would be for its members, having shaken their heads in despair to hold up their hands and say: “the Holy Grail of rational interpretation is impossible to find”. But it is not for us to desert our judicial duty, however lamentably others have legislated. But, we find little comfort or assistance in the historic canons of construction for determining the will of Parliament which were fashioned in a more leisurely age and at a time when elegance and clarity of thought and language were to be found in legislation as a matter of course rather than exception.
That is the Court of Appeal struggling to make sense of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Found here by him (who has recently resolved to blog approximately every day and whom I recommend) via a comment on this, which is about, among other foolishnesses, the recent fashion among Them for stopping us taking photos of Them.
My dad was a Big Cheese lawyer, and I can remember him telling me stuff like this several decades ago. I vaguely recall him saying that until about nineteen sixty something or thenabouts, there was this bloke who lived in a den in Whitehall and who spent his time rewriting laws so that (a) they didn’t contradict themselves, and (b) they didn’t contradict each other, but (c) so far as he could contrive it, they managed to maintain the original will of the legislators, insofar as he could divine it. If he could not divine it, he made it up, as intelligently as he could. But then, catastrophe. He retired. Ever since then, the laws have got more and more incoherent and incomprehensible. And of course now, you would need about a hundred of such non-existent paragons of legal non-incontinence just to keep up.
As Rob, the above mentioned blogger quotes another commenter saying:
We are told that ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’ but how can it not be an excuse when even the courts are unsure of what the law is?
In practice, I think I notice that, recently (i.e. during the time since that old bloke my dad talked about retired), They have evolved a relatively sensible way of enforcing Their laws (senseless though the laws themselves frequently are), which is based on distinguishing between real laws and arbitrary laws. The real ones, against things like murder, assault, robbery and so on, still get you arrested at once, provided They catch you at it. But the vast mountain range of arbitrary laws and rules and regulations, often in the form of policy directives from On High about what various Acts of Parliament actually mean (given that as originally written they are quite often gibberish) according to On High, are enforced by you first being given a warning. You may not park on that purple line. You must have a permit to hand out leaflets here. You can’t wear that hat or that suntan lotion or eat that sticky bun or drink that drink in that sized glass or call that an artichoke. You are obliged to fill in this form. You must send it to us (i.e. Them) within one month. Etcetera, etcetera, et something angry cetera. Which means that, in practice, ignorance of the law has become the obviously reasonable defence that it obviously now is, with regard to almost all recently concocted laws. If They were to insist otherwise, They would get repeatedly involved in huge fights with people who don’t want to break the law, but who don’t know what it is. I.e. with everybody.
I now live my life certain that I am constantly breaking laws of this or that recently invented sort, and as far as I am concerned it is up to Them to tell me about which laws actually matter to Them. I will then, if I think that Their particular commands or demands make some sense, or if They are sufficiently menacing about them, obey them. Or, I will carry on breaking whatever idiot law it is or that They have just made up without troubling Parliament with the petty details, but a bit more carefully. I still take photos of policemen, for instance. I am just a bit more careful about letting them know I’m doing it, and am careful while doing it not to Look At Them In A Funny Way.
Decade after decade, to mention another example, I have failed to register to vote. Occasionally I read somewhere or see something telling me that this is illegal. Is it? I don’t know and I don’t care. Nobody menacing actually tells me that I must register and threatens me with actual trouble if I don’t. So from where I stand, the mere law of the matter can go jump into the Serpentine.
If They want me to be more respectful of “the law” (which is how They typically now describe Their laws), They should reduce the number of – and reduce the incoherence and arbitrariness of – Their laws, to the point where the laws that remain mostly make sense.