On ‘Freemen’, common law, and unintended consequences

A man sitting at a desk looking frustratedI’ve written about self-styled ‘sovereign citizens’ and ‘freemen on the land’ before: products of selective reading through a Vaseline-smeared lens, they believe that the right combination of arcane language and red ink casts a spell over the legal landscape that opens a portal through which they can escape the effects of the law. They throw around high-minded principles of democracy and government, but the law they’re actually trying to evade is invariably one of taxation or debt. Funny that.

Of their various obsessions, ‘Freemen’ are particularly interested in common law. For the uninitiated, common law is the set of rules and customs that, over many hundreds of years, developed into a coherent (but fluid) set of laws. The opposite—not really opposite, more the other side of the same legal coin—is statute law: the familiar codified laws passed by Parliament and referred to by name. Over time, statute law has displaced some of the common law, but much remains: the classic example is the offence of murder, which appears nowhere on the statute book, but is nonetheless definitely illegal!

Anyway, back to ‘Freemen’. They believe that they can side-step liability to statute law by claiming to ‘stand under’ common law (this is ‘Freeman’ word salad: they believe that ‘do you understand?’ really means ‘do you consent to my jurisdiction?’, which is nonsense). The vagaries of their theory don’t bear repeating, but essentially chanting ‘I claim common-law jurisdiction’ or whining about the difference between ‘lawful’ and ‘legal’ is supposed to be enough. Obviously this is facile to the point of wilful ignorance, but it does raise an interesting question: why common law?

If ‘Freemen’ believe that laws passed by Parliament are undemocratic and/or illegitimate (as they seem to), then common law is even more so: it was instituted by an absolute monarch, and has been added to over hundreds of years by unelected judges and Law Lords. Furthermore, reverting to common law alone would permit behaviours that we would find unconscionable in modern society. For example, if we discard all statute law, then the age of sexual consent is no longer defined. The first statutory age of consent was set at twelve in 1275 (it’s in Law French, so good luck), and was undoubtedly based on the customs of that time. I’m charitably assuming that supporters of ‘Freeman’ theories wouldn’t go so far as to accept that today, but if they only recognise common law then they have no choice.

It turns out that statutes are often passed for a bloody good reason!

It all comes down to this: no amount of shouting ‘no jurisdiction’, or asking for written oaths, or scrawling ‘no contract’ in red crayon, or asking for an ‘actual accounting’, or claiming maritime jurisdiction, or anything else in the ‘Freeman’ magic bucket of pseudo-legal numbnuttery will get you anywhere in the existing system. That is my one and only point—and for the avoidance of doubt I stick to my belief that the vast majority of these people try to escape justice for selfish reasons alone.

(This post was adapted from a reply I made to a commenter the other day. I’ve had to close comments on my other ‘freeman’ posts to avoid the steady stream of abuse that these people seem to generate. If you’d like to comment on this one, please be nice. Thanks!)


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2 Responses to On ‘Freemen’, common law, and unintended consequences

  1. Hi, I found my way here after following a link to one of your other posts on this subject. I figured you must have had to close down comments because they did seem to be somewhat relentless. Your patience was incredibly impressive. I felt my own reality was twisting under the weight of so much insistence on refusing logic and common sense. You really ought to think about becoming a lawyer if you have not done so since the date of the post. Your ability to wade through piles of annoying and confusing drivel would be an asset, though you do seem a touch more testy in this more up to date post.

    I was fascinated at the idea that murder doesn’t appear in statute. I had to see for myself, and although there is much discussion of similar acts or of murders that happen in other countries I was surprised to see that you were indeed correct. I imagine they must have felt the law was so well established that any attempt to codify would simply have given rise to possibilities of loopholes and confusion.

    Although I find myself being forced to agree with you on that point, I would still like to offer a difference of opinion on some of the things you have said. I would not consider the common law to have been instituted by an absolute monarch. When William originally took England it is my understanding that the common law was put in place by pulling together the previously observed customs. Where certain unwritten laws stood before his arrival he accepted these customs rather than risk an uprising by imposing his own ideas of law. William merely ensured that such customs were commonly observed throughout the entire kingdom.

    I would consider the common law to therefore be more democratic than modern statute law as it would have been created by the acceptance and observance of the majority of people over a long period of time, whereas modern statute law, whilst being technically enacted by a democratic government, could be argued to have been created by unpopular representatives who often do not have a majority in their constituencies. In addition to the arguments against the representative first past the post system that elects our governments it might also be noted that a law might only be enacted by the barest majority in parliament. Almost half the legislature might consider a law to be complete rubbish yet it will still be enacted. In addition to this there is also the worrying thought that many politicians are motivated more by the effect of newspaper publicity, personal interest, or the party whip who is controlled by the executive branch of government. There are many reasons to think that our legal system is not as democratic as it should be.

    The judges and law lords are often said to be interpreting the law, or to be applying the intention of the law as it is written rather than creating law. The way in which the law is adjusted by judges happens very gradually and only under very specific circumstances as it is applied to real life situations which might not have been in the contemplation of the legislature. If it is seen to have been done so mistakenly then the option of appeal is able to correct the imbalance. The years of experience held by the judges, and their supposed independence should enable the law to be found in ways that would correspond to democratic wishes with a frequency far higher than that allowed by the failings of democracy in parliament. Their steadiness and security of tenure means that they are not likely to swing with public opinion as set by the most sensational newspaper stories of the time. Additionally, if their precedents do stray badly away from democratic principles then it is certain that legislation would correct them in a very short amount of time. An example of this can be seen in the recent failed attempt to sue GCHQ which saw new legislation released to ‘clarify’ the legal position before the case even made it into court.

    I would gladly go on but I am afraid it is almost 3am at the moment and although I have enjoyed reading your own writing so far, I consider a lot of the inanity I have read from commenters to be baffling and possibly not the best use of time.

    • Ian Chard

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful and enlightening comment. After completing my LLB I did contemplate going further, but unfortunately the sheer cost of qualifying as a solicitor—plus the drastic reduction in salary as a result of ‘starting again’—makes it practically impossible for me. I would be homeless and bankrupt in a matter of months.

      I’m going to have to give myself time to think about your points on common law. I am by no measure an expert either in history or law, and your point about the origin of the common law is certainly more nuanced than mine. I’m unconvinced about the democratic argument, mainly because the majority of people weren’t involved at all: after all, universal suffrage is a 20th century development, and for hundreds of years in the history of common law the vast majority of people had no way of influencing its development. If I’m honest, the modern operational aspects of law interest me far more than its history, but it’s still an interesting area to contemplate.

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