Laws unto themselves

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 October, 2004, 12:00am

They are one of the stranger legacies of Australia's colonisation by the British, but their days are numbered. Queensland has announced that it is to scrap a bizarre set of laws which date back to 12th century England, and which have been on the state's statute books for more than 70 years. The laws, which technically still apply, deem illegal such offences as 'walking outside the home at night wearing felt or other slippers', pretending to tell fortunes at flea markets, being found in a stable or coach house and 'possessing a dark lantern, electric torch or silent matches'.

Offenders can be fined A$100 (HK$570) or sentenced to six months in prison for any of the above, although Queensland police say they cannot remember the last time any of the laws resulted in a prosecution.

Most were already out of date when they were lifted from an 1824 English bill and incorporated into Queensland's Vagrants, Gaming and Other Offences Act in 1931. The original bill was, in turn, based on laws which were first drawn up in England around the time of the Black Death. Queensland's state parliament will debate changes to the act this week, with the government hoping to draw up new legislation excluding the old laws.

'The old Vagrants Act - like the term itself - is outdated, based on obsolete English laws,' said Judy Spence, the state's police minister. 'Some of these provisions are unjust in today's society, while others are phrased in language that belongs in the horse and carriage era. We believe that the bill will reflect modern, contemporary standards.'

The old act also made it illegal to be found at night with one's face masked or blackened, and allowed a wife to declare her husband a 'habitual drunkard'.

While Queensland overhauls its laws, other states retain a range of curious offences.

In Victoria, for instance, it is still illegal to 'drive a dog or goat harnessed to a vehicle in a public place', to engage in 'unauthorised rainmaking operations', or to trade with pirates.

Until last year, the state also prohibited witchcraft, despite the fact that it is home to about 2,000 modern-day witches.

In neighbouring New South Wales, being 'a common scold', eavesdropping and being a 'common nightwalker' could, theoretically, have landed a person in prison until a decade ago.

Clearing up such legislative anachronisms is clearly long overdue, despite the colour they bring to otherwise dry-as-dust legislation. After decades of persecution, slipper-wearing, cart-driving rainmakers across the land can finally breathe a sigh of relief.