Ignorance of the law is no excuse?

As a legislator I have a confession to make. I do not read all the laws that are rammed through Parliament – there are too many of them. I do try to read all the Acts of Parliament brought before us for debate, but these days those Acts of Parliament are just the beginning. Once passed, they allow the government to go off and legislate in detail about that topic, pushing through Statutory Instruments that often are not debated at all in Commons. Many of them are put out in the summer when Parliament is not allowed to be in session, and many of them go through without a word in anger being said against them. Reading the Acts themselves does not leave me well informed about our law – I would need to read all the secondary regulation, sometimes put through a year or more after the original Act.

Many MPs do not even read the primary legislation we are putting through, because it is often abstruse, and vague, leaving much to be decided in the regulations that follow. Because this government limits the time available for debating all Bills automatically, the Commons these days tends to concentrate on a few items or controversies over each bill which might make it onto the media. The detailed work of scrutinising each line of legislation is left much more to outside lobby groups, consultants and advisers. Bill committees can only get so far in the time available, and only by considering the original text. Very often the government ends up with large numbers of amendments at the very end of the Parliamentary process, as by then the outside interest groups have woken up and explain why the law as originally conceived will not work.The Bill we agree to on Report and 3rd Reading may be very different from the Bill considered in Committee.

If even the legislators themselves have not read all the laws, let alone know their contents, it is expecting a lot that busy people trying to lead their normal lives should also know all the laws. There is simply too much law, and too much pettifogging law. Time was when Acts of Parliament were shorter, when there was less regulaiton on top of the Act, and when the principles that underpinned the Act were understood by many.

Today it is more difficult to guess what the law is from first principles, because so much of the law is bureacratic and silly, often achieving the opposite of what it sets out to achieve.

It is still the case that ignorance of the law is no defence, but I have increasing sympathy with generally law abiding people who simply had not got round to reading the reams of legislative paper being churned out by Brussels and Whitehall which might affect them and their businesses. It is easier for large companies, because they can afford expensive staff and consultants to alert them to relevant changes. It is a nightmare for small businesses, where entrepreneurs have better things to do with their time than become experts on EU directives and UK Statutory instruments.

The legislative factories are too efficient at churning out lots of law, but useless at producing good law which is clear, simple, and meets with general support. One of my main grievances with the EU constitutional Treaty is that is designed to make it easier for 27 countries to produce more laws. It is called institutional change to allow decisions to be made. Why one earth do we want more laws? Isn’t everything wicked – and quite a few things that are not – banned and regulated already?

If legislators are to read the laws they pass, and if the public is to have some chance of knowing what the law is, we need to get back to less law and better law. The EU model is based on ever more complicated controls and needless interference.

Too much law means a cowed people, unsure of what the law says, and hesitant about doing things and making decisions. Too much law is the enemy of enterprise and risk taking. Too much law means the talented go into the law and bureaucracy, where the easier returns can be made. Too much law makes life a misery.

Better government means less government, concentrating on those things that matter where a sensible law fairly enforced can make a difference.

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  1. Tim Bull
    Posted December 17, 2007 at 11:13 am | Permalink


    If, as some commentators predict, we are moving toward the principles of 'Roman' Law (all actions are illegal unless specifically enabled by law) then the enactment of many new and loosly drafted laws should benefit our liberties – if they are enabling.

    Typically, under this government, they are nearly all disabling !

  2. Letters From A Tory
    Posted December 17, 2007 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    It seems incredible to me that 'ignorance' is deemed a reasonable excuse by the government when it comes to breaking the law. I don't expect every politician to read every law, but I do expect them to know the laws that concern THEM – and party donations concern every single MP in the country and a lot of other people as well.

  3. APL
    Posted December 17, 2007 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    JR: "but I have increasing sympathy with generally law abiding people who simply had not got round to reading the reams of legislative paper being churned out by Brussels and Whitehall which might affect them and their businesses."

    Well, this is what the Europhiles wanted! Ken Clarke wanted us to be more like the continentals ("we must not miss that boat"), he has what he wanted. They have so many laws that most of them were ignored. Italy, a wonderful country, but much of its economy is on the illicit black market. That being the rational response to too many laws – ignore the law!

    Our old system, where there were relitively few laws, but they were enforced rigouriously was in my opinion better.

    The Anglo Saxon concept of Law, what is not forbidden is permitted in contrast to the Continental concept of law, what is not expressly permitted is forbidden.

    JR: "Too much law means a cowed people, unsure of what the law says, and hesitant about doing things and making decisions. Too much law is the enemy of enterprise and risk taking."

    It is also the signiture of a repressive regime, if you have no hope or reasonably going through life without contravening one or other law, then the government can pick on you at any time and goal you for this or that minor indrescession. The government can continue to throw accusuations at you, until you are ruined.

    By the way, be under no illusion, 'Carbon quota's' are another manifestation of the same phenomena. Now, you cannot breath without permission of the state.

    Essentially, this is what happened to Lord Black, the authorities could not actually get him on the charges, so they got him on obstruction of justice instead.

    If it can happen to someone as rich and powerful as Black, what hope have the rest of us?

  4. Cliff
    Posted December 17, 2007 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    The biggest worry as far as I am concerned, is the fact that so many of these "new" offences are absolute liability offences or in other words, the need for a "mens rea" is gone. The action in itself is enough to convict, no need for any intent or recklessness to be proved.

    Many new offences can only be tried in a magistrates court which in my opinion, is little more than a rubber stamping exercise. What the prosecution and their official witness' say is always true and their evidence is always preferred over the defendants'.

    I am also concerned by the number of quangos that can impose fines, oppps, sorry not fines penalties. If they were called fines they would actually be illegal.

    If one looks at speeding fines for example, I am told that it is forty pounds if you accept guilt and pay straight away but, if you wish to challenge it in a court, you can be fined upto

  5. Mrs Smallprint
    Posted December 17, 2007 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    I agree entirely, too much law, open to too many interpretations and way way too much interference. I named my blog Mrs Smallprint because I am one of the small business people trying to make their way through the endless regulation without being arrested or constantly fined for non-submission of this or that return. The last ten years under Labour have seen an ever increasing nightmare of constantly changing regulations and forms.

    What we need most is a freeze on all new "Gordon bright ideas" until we've sorted out all the things that are wrong with his last lot.

  6. Francis Irving
    Posted December 17, 2007 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this John. It's interesting to get a view from inside.

    While the underlying problem is too much (often bad quality) new law, there are some technological improvements that can help. Hopefully the web-based tools that both Parliament and civil society will make for viewing amendments, and collaboratively researching new laws, will be really good in a few years time.

    Out here we're aware that many MPs aren't scutinising legislation enough, it is reassuring to see that some of you are trying to! Keep up the good work.

  7. Ed
    Posted December 17, 2007 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    It's clear to me that Parliament and the government try to do too much. Instead of trying to micromanage every possible permutation, Parliament's job should be to set the outline and let the chips fall where they will.

  8. mikestallard
    Posted December 17, 2007 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    It is so refreshing to see just one MP who can see clearly where Parliament is going wrong.
    Down here at grass roots, we live in a whirl of total inefficiency and noseyness – what race are you, are you gay, what do you intend to teach (in five page detail), how many people do you have in each class, sorry you cannot post that, sorry your bins have some plastic in the wrong place.
    Whoops – we've lost all your secret details!
    Whoops we've lost them again!
    Whoops! we have let even more criminals out and West Side Boys in.
    Whoops! We have signed into Europe, but it doesn't matter, does it – they've done it anyway.

    My question is this: OK you can see clearly what is going wrong.
    Can the rest of the Conservatives and will things be any different when they get elected at the coming election?
    (This mob are doomed and I give them until Easter).

    Reply: Conservatives all think this government is incompetent, and trying to do too many things.

  9. Disheartened Voter
    Posted December 17, 2007 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    Following up on an advert in one of the Sunday papers, I had cause to look at the HMRC website to see what the new (2007) Money Laundering Regulations (MLR) said. It is disgraceful – these regulations are intrusive, badly framed and potentially a serious threat to day-to-day business transactions. The scope of the individuals and organisations that need to be registered (and assessed in many cases as fit & proper persons) is substantially increased.
    When the MLR regulations were originally introduced the intention appeared to be to 'trap' larger sums (e.g.

  10. Mrs Smallprint
    Posted December 17, 2007 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    Ignorance of the law is no excuse but how can we be expected to comply with laws that even our legislators have not had time to scrutinise? Government Ministers who have enacted legislation on political funding do not understand or feel the need to comply with their own rules and think that it is an excuse to plead ignorance and lack of intent to 'do wrong'. Non compliance is the offence and they are caught by their own admission. Send them to the cells!

  11. APL
    Posted December 18, 2007 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    mikestallard: "My question is this: OK you can see clearly what is going wrong. Can the rest of the Conservatives and will things be any different when they get elected at the coming election?
    (This mob are doomed and I give them until Easter)."

    JR: "Conservatives all think this government is incompetent, and trying to do too many things."

    Classic example of avoiding the answer. Should we take that as a 'No', then? As in, things will be pretty much the same under a new conservative administration, especially as much if not most of the regulations implemented into british law originate in Brussels, and Cameron has avoided grasping that nettle for fear of waking the big beast from his comfortable slumber.

    Look, even Labour activists recognise this government is incompetent.

    Reply: I believe that Conservatives will be better and will make a difference. Judge us by the next manifesto when it arrives.

  • About John Redwood

    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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