Graham King

Solvitas perambulum

Laws should expire


In England in 1388 Richard III made a law stating that all men (or only ages 10-18, versions differ) must own bows and practice archery on Sunday’s and holidays. This law was finally repealed in 1960.

An 1888 law encouraging emigration to the colonies of unemployed adults and pauper children from the overcrowded cities of England and Wales was repealed in 2004.

The Internet abounds with weird outdated laws like these. A law is valid until it is repealed. As law makers (an elected assembly) make more laws than they repeal, we get more and more laws. Only a small section of them end up being relevant to the world we live in. There is a simple solution: Laws should expire.

I propose that every law passed should include its expiry date. 1 year for emergency legislation, 5 – 10 years for most laws, with probably a cap of 20 years. Laws forming part of a country’s constitution – i.e. the major ‘basis of society’ laws such as not permitting murder – could have 50 – 100 year renewable periods.

As the laws come up for review they can be modified and updated, for example to take into account new technology and new social patterns. In the case of emergency legislation the country will of had more time to consider the issue.

Regularly updating and revising laws would make them more directly relevant to our daily lives, easier to understand by non-legal professionals, and easier to apply and enforce. There would be less need for interpretation by a judge or jury, which would mean much smaller differences in how different people are treated for the same offense.

The maximum life-span of a law could be tied to how long it has already been in force, how long it was debated for, and how many members of the assembly participated in making it. This would prevent governments rushing laws through ‘in the middle of the night’ (The U.S.A. Patriot Act being a very good example of this). If the law was only presented (or amended) a few hours before the vote, and only a few people voted, then you are not representing the people. You should not be able to make a long-term law. If the law has already been in force for some years, or most of the assembly voted on it, then that is a more representative law and should live longer.