Against the law

It’s often said that ignorance of the law is no defence. But this surely works only if laws are obvious and known to all. If you don’t know the laws, how can you be sure you haven’t broken any?

Since 1497 there have been 1.5 million Acts of Parliament in the UK. The last UK government passed a record number of new laws – a total of 3,506 in 2010. That’s more than 10 new laws every working day. Are you still certain you haven’t broken any? Do you even know what any of these new laws are?

Are unknown laws with the potential to snare you as you go about your daily business any different in their effect than the arbitrary whims of a dictator? Can we really go on accumulating more and more laws that ordinary people are simply unaware of?

I picture these laws as a kind of invisible spider’s web, waiting to catch us out, or as a hi-tech laser-triggered alarm system, each laser put in place to prevent a very specific action or to fix some problem or other. The effect is like the pages and pages of terms & conditions you get when you sign a contract, or the vast unreadable legal terms you have to tick when you install some new software. You cannot possibly read and understand it, so you have to hope that what you are doing is OK and is not going to violate some law. In other words, you just have to keep your head down and trust in the powers that be.

In science, progress is generally made by eliminating unnecessary laws. Great strides in understanding and insight are made when a number of complicated laws, rules of thumb and special cases are replaced by a smaller number of more fundamental, far-reaching laws of nature. A large number of laws indicates that a subject isn’t properly understood.

Why can’t the same principle apply to the laws of the land? Moses managed with just 10 commandments. We probably need more than that, but surely fewer than we currently have.

I say, if we don’t even know what the laws are, then they’re bad laws, by definition.

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14 responses to “Against the law

  1. I hope I don’t get arrested or gagged for saying this, but I think this was one of your best posts!

  2. I think this post was utterly brilliant … truly, Steve. I was most impressed and thought-provoked. Bravo!

  3. So many laws. In the US: Federal laws, state laws, county laws, city laws. Sometimes contradictory laws (illegal at the federal level, legal in one state, not legal in another state). So many lawyers due to so many laws at so many levels.

  4. I surmise you are thinking of a situation in particular or you would not broach the subject. Which situation bothers you?

  5. Point of the story, the laws are the ones that are ignorant. Ignorant to what? Ignorant to reality. (Those bloody laws.) I think that’s how the entire legal system maintains its identity and sense of importance. If everyone understood the laws, if everyone could comprehend legal jargon (which is intentionally misleading), then what would be the purpose of having lawyers? What would a lawyer’s purpose actually be?

    • Ah, the legal system. Dickens parodied it in Bleak House and really nothing has changed in 160 years. In fact it has surely got worse.

      You are right – if the laws are meant to be obeyed by everyone, then surely they must be written so that everyone can understand them. Lawyers would be needed to represent people in trials, etc, but surely we don’t need the current system.

      But ultimately it’s the lawmakers who must change the law. If the law was simple, the current legal system wouldn’t be needed.

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