Some quick notes about British laws:
- It is now illegal to smoke in an enclosed public place, bar some minor exceptions for stage performances.
- The age to buy alcohol is 18.
- It is legal to consume alcohol in a pub/bar/restaurent with a meal at 16, but it must be bought by someone at least 18.
- Only wine or beer, though, no spirits. And it's at the premises' discretion; they're legally allowed to refuse alcohol to 16-to-18-year-olds - actually, all selling of alcohol is at the premisis' discretion, so someone can refuse to sell you alcohol even if you're clearly over 18 because they think you're already too drunk, or they`re not convinced you're actually old enough (even if you've shown them ID, it might not be real, or yours, after all) which avoids issues if they don't believe what you say your age is.
- The legal age to consume alcohol is 5, in private with parental supervision. Below that age, a doctor has to decide that it would be a good idea for some medical reason (rarely invoked, obviously).
- Note that carrying an opened container of alcohol in a public place is an offence under various city bye-laws. Check if it applies to you. Normally the worst that will happen is the nice police officer will confiscate your stuff, but if you are egregiously drunk, you may end up spending a night in the cells.
- The age to get married is 16 with parental permission, 18 without (except in Scotland, where it's 16 with or without parental consent).
- In UK works you may expect to run across references of teenage lovers eloping to get married in Gretna. Historically this was the first town you'd come to across the Scottish border and therefore seen as a quick place to get married in. As such it has accrued a bit of a romantic reputation and now has a sizable waiting list for marriages. Still, you can pass your time at the giant outlet mall near the motorway.
- Scotland has also said it will introduce gay marriage before England, so expect to see older same-sex couples heading north for a quick ceremony.
- The age of sexual consent is 16. If a person older than that has sex with someone below it, it is now rape of a young child (distinct from and more harshly punished than rape) if the younger partner is under 13 or sexual activity with a minor (if they're between 13 and 16; this carries a lesser punishment).
- Until recently, the age for male homosexuality was 18 (and before that, 21), and the age for female homosexuality was non-existant, as it had never been banned. They're now both set at 16.
- Same-sex civil partnerships are legal note
- The present government has said it will legalize same-sex marriage, as has the SNP administration in Scotland.
- Age to buy and appear in porn is now 18 (2003 Sexual Offences Act)
- Cigarette purchase age was recently changed from 16 to 18.
- Abortion is legal up until 24 weeks if two doctors are satisfied that continuing the pregnancy risks injury to the physical/mental health of the woman (Section C of the Abortion Act) or existing children of the woman (Section D), effectively meaning that anybody determined to have one can. After that, it's the doctor's call.
- This is a "conscience issue" in Parliament—MPs will not get told by their parties how to vote on this.
- This is also a conscience issue for doctors; no doctor has sign off on or carry out an abortion if it conflicts with their own beliefs but in this case they are legally obliged to refer the patient on to a doctor who will and also legally obliged to make sure that this delays the process as little as possible
- Abortion is illegal in Stroke Country and in the Republic of Ireland (unless the Mother's life is threatened), but it is not illegal for people seeking abortions to travel to the UK to have one for free on the NHS. After a case in Ireland where pro-life doctors refused to allow a young Indian woman an abortion even though it was clear she would die without it, this may soon change for the Republic.
- It's not illegal to jaywalk. Many Brits find the idea it might be baffling. Even if crossing lights say Dont Walk you can happily cross if you can see the way is clear. This applies to all roads except Dual Carriageways and Motorways. Unlike the US pedestrians do not have right of way at crossings or junctions. Many an American tourist in London has had a shock when they expect traffic to stop for them.
- It's illegal to be naked in public when it causes distress in a public place (your back garden probably wouldn't count). Nudity is legal on a handful of public beaches.
- Cannabis remains illegal, although there is some confusion among the public and the police guidelines will mean that officers will simply confiscate small amounts or hand out a fixed penalty notice.
- Cannabis was originally classed with barbiturates in Class B; it was demoted to Class C a couple of years ago to join drugs such as Valium. However, the government has announced it will be returning to Class B (against the advice of their scientific advisory body) due to an increase in the strength of the commonly-available material.
- Also related to the previous government's obsession with targets - arrest one person for possession? That's a single crime detection. Warn the whole group he's with (which couldn't be made to stick if arrests were made)? That's one detection for every person in the group
- Incitement to racial hatred is a criminal offence. Any criminal act that is racially motivated or homophobic will get an increased sentence.
- Attempts to bring in similar laws for "religious hatred" failed due to concerns over stifling legitimate debate. Similarly, Rowan Atkinson led a campaign to remove a vaguely worded provision against "insulting" language, which it was feared would lead to an even worse stifling.
- The possession of handguns by civilians has been illegal since 1998.
- Shotguns require a licence. The licence is a right and it is up to Police to have a reason NOT to issue one. Getting a licence for a rifle requires a "good reason" and it is up to you to show why you should have it. A licence can be issued for specific uses in specific areas, ie "To shoot rabbit on Warren Farm" and you can then only use the weapon for that specific use and no other. (it explicitly cannot be for self-defence), but there is no lower age limit.
- Carrying "realistic-looking replica firearms" openly in public is illegal. (Airsoft weapons should be stored in a case, unloaded.)
- Since the passing of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, the sale of such is also illegal barring a few specific defences.
- Carrying a knife in public is illegal, unless it meets very specific criteria (the blade must be under 3" and not fixed or automatic (i.e. it must fold out of the handle by being pulled on by the user)) unless the owner can prove they have a good reason for carrying it (e.g. their job). Until recently any bladed instrument could be owned on private property except for butterfly knives. The sale, import and export of curved (read: replica samurai) swords is now illegal, excepting traditionally manufactured and martial arts swords. Also, you have to be 18 to buy a knife.
- The age restriction actually applies to all forms of blades, including butter knives, paper knives and safety scissors, leading to the odd situation of University students without ID being prevented from buying cutlery for their first year away from home.
- Exceptions to all weapon laws are made with regards to antiques.
- It is illegal to watch broadcast television without a licence. The BBC does not run adverts and is instead funded by these licence fees.
- The BBC may not run adverts, but product placement is another matter...
- Not quite, the BBC can not make or fund any show with product placement, nor can they show 3rd party shows with obvious product placement, however commercial offshoots (Like BBC America) can show product placement with some limitations.
- Furthermore, all "public service broadcasters" (i.e, all of them) are mandated by law to be impartial in all things. Thus, shows like The Daily Show or The O'Reilly Factor could not be made in Britain, as their hosts offer blatantly partisan comment (though British people can still watch them if they can pick them up). Political debate is supplied by shows such as Newsnight and Question Time, where politicians of each of the "main" parties are invited on to debate/be grilled by the hosts. This only extends so far - it is at the BBC's discretion which views they may deem "discredited" and thus ignorenote . This sometimes causes controversy, such as a recent BBC decision to "review" whether or not the view that "global warming is not occurring/man-made" should still be considered a valid viewpoint.
- Age to get a driving license for a car is 17; 16 for mopeds or small agricultural tractors. A driving license is not required on private land.
- As a general rule, cars keep the same registration number from showroom to scrapyard. Vintage cars lacking the original number are worth substantially less than those that do. Number plates are bought from third-party suppliers rather than supplied by the registration authority. If you are a vain twitnote then you can get a personalized numberplate. There are various rules on what it may say - for instance, S4M would be allowed by P3N15 would not.
- If you design to/attempt to/deliberately kill the Sovereign, any of their family, then you must be tried for treason, not murder or manslaughter (neither of these verdicts, in fact, are available to the court). Duress and marital coercion are not defenses. If it was by accident then manslaughter and negligent homicide are available. The Treason Act 1495 provides that in a civil war between two claimants to the throne, those who fight for the losing side cannot be held guilty of a crime merely for fighting against the winner.
Oh, and one fundamental thing: Britain—specifically England—is the origin of The Common Law
and remains a common-law jurisdiction. Thus, unlike on the continent, justice is based heavily on precedent. In other words, if there exists an old case that is substantially similar to the case being decided on, then the ruling in the old case will be followed. Hence, a judge's final ruling for a case will be essentially a law that will bind all later substantially similar cases, unless a decision to overrule (which is rare, and only made by Supreme Court, or in previous eras the House of Lords) is made later. That's why in lawyer movies / TV series, lawyers may have to look up century-old cases for possible precedent which might be helpful for their current case, though mostly for better understanding as the laws created by those cases are readily documented in any references (unless it's so obscure or obsolete like the laws shown below).
It is important to note, however, that the law system in Scotland is very different from the rest of the country. While laws passed by parliament (e.g. age restrictions and weapon laws) still come into effect, as a result of devolution, the Scottish parliament now passes laws of its own, and some new laws in the UK parliament do not apply. The system of courts and the legal basis for them is also different, and precedent is not as important in determining the law and the High Court of Justiciary (Scotland's highest criminal court) has limited declaratory powers. Even before devolution Scotland had a separate Common Law (Scots Law), as a result of its separate judiciary; unlike the English common law, Scots Law is heavily influenced by the Roman Civil Law (transmitted by French law professors before The House of Stuart
inherited the English Crown, thanks to the Auld Alliance).
The law in Scotland also differs in that there are three outcomes possible in court: Guilty, Not Guilty and Not Proven
. Not Proven is pretty unique to Scotland and means exactly the same as "not guilty". However, juries have begun applying it to mean that the court pretty much knows that the defendant has committed a crime, they can't actually prove
it. The Scottish law system is sufficiently different to the English system that any lawyer wishing to transfer from one to the other is required to complete a one-year transition course.
The old Dumb Laws section
Britain has a fine tradition of unabolished weird laws. None of these are apocryphal
Among the most famous are:
- All men over the age of 14 are required to train with a longbow for two hours every Sunday.
- If you meet a Welshman within the city walls of Coventry after dark, it is legal to shoot him with a crossbow.
- There are multiple variations of this in various cities. They generally involve criteria such as:
- The victim being Welsh or Scottish; which tends to depend which border is nearer.
- It being (or not) a Sunday or under certain circumstances on a Sunday.
- Some specified weapon, usually a bow or crossbow.
- Being within the city limits or a specific area of the city.
- Contrary to popular belief, the infamous "Suicide is punished by hanging" law has been repealed for some time.
- Several Christmas pastimes (such as eating mince pies on December 25th) are technically illegal due to the efforts of Oliver Cromwell to cancel Christmas after he won the Civil War.
- Up until the late Nineties, there were still three crimes which carried the death penalty, even though the death penalty itself had been abolished for most crimes thirty years before. These were treason, piracy on the high seas, and arson in HM shipyards. The last provision is a relic of when Britain's navy was made of wooden ships and so starting a fire in HM dockyards could potentially cripple British military strength. Sort of the equivalent to setting off a fission bomb in Pearl Harbor.
- Scotland has several old, never abolished laws, specific to the area, for example:
- It is illegal to be drunk and in "control" of a cow.
- Though this law did actually make a lot of sense when it was passed, as farmers would go to town centres on market day, get sloshed, and then have to drive their unsold livestock back to their farms, except they were now woefully incapable of doing so. The chaos this created makes the law seem rather clever, in hindsight.
- In the city of Glasgow it is illegal to tie your goat to a lamppost.
- Notably, while male homosexuality was illegal in Britain until the latter half of the 20th Century, lesbianism was not outlawed because (so legend has it) Queen Victoria refused to believe women would actually do such things and persuaded the Prime Minister of the time to remove references to it from the Act.
- This legend is actually untrue. As a constitutional monarch, the Queen did not have the power to overrule parliament. Had she tried, there would have been political uproar. There is belief, however, that parliament themselves omitted lesbianism in case gave women ideas.
- It is illegal to resign from the House of Commons. In order to actually do so, MPs resort to a legal fiction whereby they're appointed to an office of profit under the Crown (usually either Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds or Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead, non-jobs with pittance salaries), immediately disqualifying them from serving in Parliament.
All of these laws are now no longer on the books however, as in the 90s a bill was passed in Westminster striking all
bylaws and laws over a certain age (made possible by the fact that Sir Robert Peel
amalgamated most of the sensible laws into a few, easier to access, acts known as the Peel's Acts) from the books, requiring them to be re-passed. All the old and daft bylaws are gone. Hopefully, you read to the end before you killed any Welshmen.
It's still technically illegal to resign from the House of Commons, though.