A law too far?

NO hunting with dogs, or smoking in public places - it seems banning things has become a national obsession in Britain. Today smokers at the wheel in Merseyside face censure.

NO hunting with dogs, or smoking in public places - it seems banning things has become a national obsession in Britain. Today smokers at the wheel in Merseyside face censure. But are we facing a ban too far? JAMES MARSTON investigates some legal curiosities.

MOTORISTS who smoke at the wheel are to be targeted for the first time by police as a potential threat to safety on the roads.

Bernard Lawson, acting deputy chief constable of Merseyside police, has told his officers they will be expected “to be on the lookout” for smoking motorists. Those caught could face an on-the-spot penalty of £60 or prosecution either for driving without due care and attention or for failing to control their vehicles. Here in Suffolk the advice is simple.

Inspector Trevor Sharman, of Suffolk's road policing unit, said: “I would advise motorists not to do anything that could distract the driver and affect the safe driving of a motor car.”

Mr Sharman said if smoking while driving meant the driver was not in proper control of the vehicle then legislation would come into force. He added: “I'm not going to say that we wouldn't stop a driver who was smoking. It would depend on the circumstances that prevail at the time.”

The announcement comes after the inclusion of smoking in new editions of the Highway Code as a potential hazard to safe driving.

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“Smoking has been added for the first time to a long list of other potential distractions which include playing loud music, eating and drinking, changing a CD or turning on a radio,” said a spokesman for the Department for Transport (DfT).

“Transgressors could face criminal charges “if someone was deemed not to be in proper control of the vehicle and a danger to road users.”

The DfT said the smoking reference in the code was an advisory one and it was down to the discretion of police forces as to how it was implemented. It said the measure was added after evidence showed that smoking at the wheel had contributed to accidents.

The move has met with opposition from campaigners for the freedom to smoke who have described it as 'persecution'. Neil Rafferty, spokesman for Forest, the pro-smoking lobby group, said: “This is going too far.”

Is Mr Rafferty right? Are we over legislated and over controlled? It's a debate that rages with civil libertarians. But did you know we are subject to some pretty strange and even archaic laws?

Since 1965 successive governments have repealed more than 2,000 out-of-date laws. For example death penalty by hanging for treason and piracy with violence on the high seas, was only abolished by the relatively recent Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

Other ancient acts include:

The statute Prerogativa Regis (Of the King's Prerogative) which probably dates from the reign of Edward II declares that "the King shall have throughout the realm, whales and great sturgeons taken in the sea or elsewhere within the realm, except in certain places privileged by the King"

As a result of the prerogative right, dead stranded whales and sturgeons should be offered to the Sovereign and must not be disposed of without the Sovereign's consent.

A statute of 1313 still forbids the wearing of armour by members of parliament when attending in the House.

The Easter Act 1928 provides that, in the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, Easter Day shall be a fixed day in each year - the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. The Act has been on the statute book for 62 years but has never been brought into force.

Under the Metropolitan Police Act 1839 no person is to discharge any cannon or other firearm of greater calibre than a common fowling-piece within 300 yards of any dwelling house to the annoyance of any inhabitant thereof. Maximum penalty: £200 fine.

Under the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 it is an offence to beat or shake any carpet, rug or mat in any street, except door mats beaten or shaken before the hour of eight in the morning), to fly a kite, to make or use a slide on ice or snow in any street and to wilfully and wantonly to disturb any inhabitant by pulling or ringing any doorbell, or knocking at a door, and to publicly to sing any profane or obscene song or ballad in any street.

An Act of 1603 protects the ancient custom whereby "huers and baulkers" take up a position on cliffs in Cornwall and shout directions to fishing boats to indicate the direction taken by shoals of fish close inshore. The Act gives those on the cliffs a right of entry into the lands of others and thus provides them with a defence to any action for trespass.

Under an Act of 1609 still in force, it is declared to be lawful for all persons dwelling in Devon or Cornwall to fetch and take sea-sand at all places for the bettering of their land and the increase of corn and tillage. The Act confirmed an ancient custom.

The Law Commission is currently preparing a further repeal act to remove outdated and impractical laws from the statute book.

They include laws from a number of areas of legislation, including the armed services, the police, the criminal law, county gaols, and taxes.

Do you know of any ancient laws or customs that need changing? Is smoking at the wheel dangerous? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send an e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

UNTIL the late 19th century, Britain had no national framework for maintaining its highways.

Each parish was responsible for repairing its roads and every able-bodied man was liable to work unpaid for six days a year repairing the roads.

A Law Commission spokesman said: “We have identified 50 Turnpike Acts, spanning the period 1695 to 1851, which are obsolete and should be repealed. They relate to the building, repair and maintenance of roads in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.”

The 'turnpike' was an alternative means of building and repairing roads in England and Wales. From around 1700, many Acts of Parliament were passed to authorise the funding of road building and repairs by charging travellers every time they used a road specified in the Act. A turnpike - a toll-gate - was set up across the road so that travellers along that road could pass through the gate only upon payment of a toll.

The use of turnpikes began to be phased out as from the 1860s, the final one ceasing to operate in 1895. By 1900, responsibility for building and maintaining highways in England and Wales had passed to county councils.

The Acts identified for repeal include:

An Act of 1695 to repair the "Great Essex Road" running from Shenfield to Harwich.

An Act of 1829 for the repair of the Suffolk road around Newmarket Heath, home of the Newmarket races.

An Act of 1830 to repair the "Acle Straight", the Norfolk road linking Great Yarmouth to Acle across the Halvergate Marshes.

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