Past and predicted changes to the law


As we approach the first anniversary of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, solicitor Ian Clay and litigation assistant Lizzy Tozawa have been looking back on the changes to the legal landscape of her reign, and looking ahead to consider what changes we might experience during the reign of King Charles III.

Perhaps the most dramatic change during the Queen’s reign, although one which would affect most of us the least, is that the era of a judge placing a black cap on his head and sentencing the guilty party to death has now passed. The last execution in the UK took place in the 1964, the year in which the death penalty for murder was suspended before being abolished in 1965. Intriguingly this did not extend to Northern Ireland until 1973 when the last person there was actually sentenced to death, the sentence not being carried out.

The death penalty remained on the statute books however. Those friendly idyllic holiday spots, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands retained the death penalty in theory up until 2004 in the case of Guernsey. These jurisdictions rather overlooked the fact that they lacked the means to carry out these sentences (perhaps not wanting to sully themselves in this way), which was one reason for the maintenance of a working gallows in Wandsworth Prison, which was tested every six months until 1994.

Another reason for the maintenance of the gallows was that in fact it was still possible to be sentenced to death for such crimes as piracy on the high seas, arson in Her Majesty’s dockyards, treason and espionage. The death sentence for all crimes was abolished in 1998.

The year 1973 saw the dramatic subjection of the legal systems of the UK (those of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) to the jurisdiction of the European Union. This was not simply a matter of academic constitutional law; it opened a route to by pass the law of this country by recourse to a court in Luxembourg, for the acceptance of laws made overseas and the prosecution of market traders selling goods in metric measurements. This was reversed when the UK left the EU.

Many laws concerning social behavior have changed greatly since 1952, the year which saw the conviction of the war time code breaker Alan Turing for acts of “gross indecency” on account of his homosexuality. Homosexuality was decriminalized in England and Wales in 1967, in Scotland in 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1981. The Isle of Man followed suit in 1992. The age of consent was equalized in 1998.

Abortion was legalized subject to certain medical criteria in 1967, although not in Northern Ireland until 2019.

Another great social change was brought about by the Divorce Reform Act of 1969 which ended the need for there to be fault in order for a divorce to be granted. A change no doubt bemoaned by traditionalists, private investigators and the proprietors of less salubrious bed and breakfast establishments.

Fans of older films and television series and those set in older times will be struck by the prevalence of smoking, often by characters who are the heroes. It was in the 1950s that the first medical studies emerged  demonstrating a link between smoking (something that had in the twentieth century been promoted as being good for health) and illnesses. This led to increasing restrictions on advertising (no more “Condor moments”), sports sponsorship (cricket fans of a certain era will remember the Rothmans Cup,  John Player League and Benson and Hedges Cup) and product placement. The Television Act of 1964 began the process of restricting public exposure to tobacco advertising and the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act of 2002 banned press and billboard advertising. The sponsorship of sport by tobacco companies was banned in 2003, although somehow there was a reprieve for Formula One for a few years.

Until very recently it was quite normal to come home from travelling by public transport, going to the cinema or after having a few drinks in the pub and smelling of other people’s smoke.  The Health Act of 2006 introduced what has been commonly referred to as the “smoking ban” and helped drive down the number of smoking related deaths as well as demand for dry cleaning.

To fully assess the sweeping changes of our laws over the last 70 years, it may surprise some to be directed to the policies propounded by the Monster Raving Loony Party. Screaming Lord Such advocated such ideas as:

  • Knighthoods for the Beatles (1997 for Paul, 2017 for Ringo, so he was half right);
  • Passports for pets (enacted in 2001);
  • 24 hour licensing (introduced in 2005);
  • Abolition of dog licenses (1987);
  • Legalization of commercial radio (1972);
  • Pedestrianisation (alright, they only specifically referred to Carnaby Street in London, but this was done in 1973 and has been extensively copied elsewhere since then);
  • Abolition of the 11+ exam (only retained in a few counties in England and in Northern Ireland).

It’s incredible to think about the changes that were introduced during Queen Elizabeth’s reign. But what about Charles III? It’s very difficult to predict, but we can find clues in the big issues facing us in the present.

Laws around climate change-

Some will say this is too little too late, others that it’s all part of a natural process and legislating around the issue is unnecessary. Movements like Extinction Rebellion are a reaction to perceived inaction by governments- would future laws recognize such protests or move to stop them? Previous public reactions to Extinction Rebellion would likely sway a government towards the latter.

There have, in recent years been law suits brought against governments – see here for an example –  for failing to prepare sufficiently for a changing climate – perhaps lawyers will have to re-specialise to become experts in climate litigation.

Since it’s not only people who are affected by climate change, but animals as well, we may reasonably expect to see new laws enacted to protect their rights. Take bees for example – we need them to pollinate the plants we rely on and yet pesticide use is killing them off. A move to protect pollinators in statute seems quite feasible and a Protection of Pollinators Bill is currently at second reading stage in the House of Commons.

Laws adapting to innovations in technology –

One area in which the introduction of new laws is almost a certainty is automated vehicles. Automated vehicles are something that feature quite heavily in the media, and it is likely that they will eventually permeate into everyday use – after all, who in 2003 would have imagined an Alexa or Siri-type smart speaker owned by 39% of UK citizens aged 16+? *. The Law Commission have published a report about this which makes for interesting reading. The person known as the ‘user in charge’ ‘will have immunity from a wide range of offences related to the way the vehicle drives, ranging from dangerous driving to exceeding the speed limit or running a red light’. The report also considers the extent to which an automated vehicle should be safer than a human driver. Whether it’s 5%, 50% or 95% this is certainly worth serious debate before any laws are passed.

Employment law changes –

The lockdowns of 2020 gave everyone chance to reflect, and the consensus seems to be that the majority of people want more flexibility and work/life balance. Will this shift in attitude and the realization that it is possible for companies to be more flexible lead to changes being enshrined in the law? The 4-day working week could be closer than we realise!

Strikes throughout 2023 (and with no end in sight) have led to one big legal change already. The Minimum Service Levels bill is already in its final stages having had some trouble in the House of Lords. It would allow the government to set down the minimum service that must be kept up during strikes. Its proponents say that it will allow stability and safety during industrial action. Others say that it infringes on the right to strike.

The cost of living crisis has seen many people unable to afford necessities. Many campaigners say that the National Living Wage is below the amount that people need to survive, and that the Real Living Wage should be the very minimum that people are paid. As with any crisis, something’s got to give – will the government move in this direction or try another approach?

The Law Society have been publishing reports, which you can find here about what the experts say will be the big legal challenges in the next 30 years. Will any of  our thoughts be right? You’ll have to come back to us in 2053!


All opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and should not be relied upon for legal advice.

(the section of this article about Queen Elizabeth’s reign was first published in the Roundabout Newspaper in 2022)


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