Pimp my penal code

THE law books of most countries are like crumbling inner-city terraces: their lino curls, their chimneys sag and their walls crack into hellish abysses whenever there’s too much rain or not enough.

Thanks to a mishmash of additions and subtractions, the average legal system is best described as a quaint little fixer-upperer and is in constant need of repair and renovation. (No doubt reality television execs would package this process in a program called Pimp My Penal Code.)

In Queensland, a legal backyard blitz is about to scrap the three-year prison sentence that can be imposed for challenging anyone else to a duel.

It is hoped that murder laws — which frown on the musket-balling or swording of arch-nemeses at sunrise — will prevent duelling from making a comeback and becoming honour settling’s new black.

Queensland also plans to remove the requirement for a mayor, sheriff or justice of the peace to read selections from the 300-year-old English Riot Act before charging those committing mayhem.

As Queensland Attorney-General Kerry Shine says: “In this day and age, one might think the mayor reading out the Riot Act would inflame rather than calm the rioters.”

The Queensland revamp is significant but nothing compared to the task faced by America’s Libertarian party, which has been fighting an ongoing campaign to expunge hundreds of archaic ordinances from the US statute book. These include bans on:

* saying “oh boy” in Jonesboro, Georgia;

* riding ugly horses in Wilbur, Washington;

* buying a hat without your wife’s say-so in Kentucky;

* going to bed without having a bath (or, confusingly, bathing without a doctor’s prescription) in Boston;

* hunting whales in landlocked Oklahoma;

* shooting any animal except a whale from a speeding car in Tennessee;

* eating a fire hydrant if you are a horse in Marshalltown, Iowa;

* and smoking a cigar if you are a dog or cat in Zion, Illinois (though domestic pets in this locality are permitted to inhale from cigarettes).

While it’s tops that the world’s legislation is being dragged kicking and cat-smoking into the 21st century, the downside of all this legal fiddling is that some new regulations already look as silly as the old ones.

In 2006, police escorted a 40-year-old squat-machine devotee from an American gym because he’d broken a new rule outlawing grunting. (Members at this particular chain of clubs are also banned from banging weights and wearing bandannas.)

In India, the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act makes it illegal to display the national flag on cushions, gloves, handkerchiefs, napkins and undies.

In Bristol, a local council has banned doormats in publicly owned housing because they are a tripping (not to mention a being-trodden-on) risk. In Hungary, parliamentarians have proposed laws that would outlaw blonde jokes.

Concerned statesfolk in Venezuela, meanwhile, have been debating a bill that would restrict parents to a list of 100 officially approved monikers for newborns because of a scourge of inventive namings in the country. Recent examples include Hengelberth, Hitler and John Wayne.

One Venezuelan congressman opposing the bill is Jhonny Owee Milano Rodriguez. He explains that his first name was inspired by the international ambience of the eastern Venezuelan oil town in which he was born, and that Owee was accidentally entered in the birth registry instead of the far less silly Oved.

The undisputed champ of dodgy new legislation, however, is the late, not-so-great Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan. His presidential decrees banned ballet, opera, car radios, lip-synching, recorded music, gold teeth and make-up on newsreaders.

He also made licensed drivers sit morality tests and renamed the Turkmen words for bread and the month of April after his dead mother. Her name — Venezuelany enough — was Gurbansoltanedzhe.

Back in Australia, we can only hope that the Queensland rejig will kick-start an overhaul of the rest of this country’s antediluvian legislation.

That bit in the constitution about our leader being some bird from Britain is looking particularly crusty, and almost as odd as Miami’s regulation on monsters (for the record, they’re not permitted within city limits after dark).

– originally published in The Australian on 08-05-2008.

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