UK Politics

Oldest surviving law faces repeal after 747 years

The tomb of Henry III in Westminster Abbey Image copyright Westminster Abbey
Image caption The laws were passed when Henry III was on the throne

Some of the oldest surviving legislation on England's statute books is set to be repealed after 747 years.

Just four of the 29 sections of the Statute of Marlborough, passed in 1267 under Henry III, remain in force.

Now two - covering debt collection - are deemed surplus to requirements since new laws came into force earlier this year.

They are among dozens of "obsolete" laws put forward for repeal by the Law Commission.

The Statute of Marlborough was signed just 32 years after the first ever Act of Parliament and predates the incorporation of Magna Carta into English law.

It originally applied to England only but was later extended to Wales and, for a time, to Ireland, although never to Scotland. Chapters 4 and 15 of the statute still remain in force in England and Wales.

"When we repeal this, we are repealing some of the most ancient laws on the statute book," said John Saunders of the Law Commission.

"I suspect most lawyers are not aware of the statute. People have heard of the Magna Carta but this is an antiquity of interest for legal historians like myself."

Landlord powers

Although the original version of Magna Carta was drawn up in 1215, it was not copied into the statute rolls to become law until 1297.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The laws pre-date Magna Carta
Image copyright PA
Image caption Magna Carta became part of English law in 1297

The surviving sections, or "chapters", of the Statute of Marlborough controlled the ancient power of distress, which allowed landlords to enter a debtor's property and seize their goods. But distress was abolished by parts of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act that came into force in March.

As a result, two of the four chapters - which covered how someone could use the power of distress - "serve no useful purpose" any longer, the Law Commission believes.

However the other two will remain law. A chapter which forbids an individual for seeking revenge for debt non-payment without the say-so of the court is not considered obsolete, the commission says; while on the fourth, which stops tenants from ruining or selling off their land, opinions as to its ongoing legal usefulness apparently still differ.

"The law has changed considerably in this area over the centuries," said Mr Saunders.

"But it was felt by lawyers who operated in this area that the powers served some residual purpose and we didn't feel able to recommend their repeal until the regime had changed."

Some 56 Acts of Parliament and sections of 49 others, relating to topics from merchant shipping to guard dogs, are under consideration to be removed from the statute books.

One is an act put in place in 1990 to deal with the "increasing popularity of acid house parties".

The measure, levying tougher fines because the parties were so profitable, serves no purpose because of subsequent legislation, the Law Commission has decided.

Another obsolete law is the 1997 act authorising referendums for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

A public consultation is under way to check that all the laws earmarked for the chop are no longer being used.

Following the consultation, a new bill - to repeal all the old acts - will be drawn up to go before Parliament next year.

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