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5 things that seem illegal but aren’t [UK]

Sep 22, 2023 | Uncategorised

How many UK laws can you list off the top of your head?

Unless you’re a legal expert, the list probably won’t be all that long. Aside from the obvious ones – murder, burglary, shoplifting – most of us go through life using our common sense and following the crowd.

Sure, we might occasionally Google the legality of something – if, for instance, we want to get on public transport with a very recently expired travel pass.

But in general, things that seem illegal usually are – and that’s enough to keep us out of the reach of the law.

Nevertheless, there are some areas of the law which don’t quite fit with what you might call a common-sense view of right and wrong.

We’re not talking about ethics – whether or not marijuana should be legalised, say. And we’re not talking about those weird and wacky laws that get mentioned on Radio 4 comedy shows (you can’t tie your shoelaces on a Tuesday in Gwent, that sort of thing).

We’re talking more about things that seem illegal but somehow aren’t. They’re frowned on, for sure, but not a police matter per se.

First up: undertaking.


Overtaking a slower-moving vehicle on the kerb side seems like it should be against the law – it can, after all, cost lives.

But actually, it’s punishable only with a fixed penalty notice (FPN) for careless driving or “driving without due care and attention”. Typically, that means three points on your licence and a £100 fine.

Only in especially dangerous cases of undertaking can you end up with a court summons.

The rules on undertaking are governed by the Highway Code, which isn’t a legal document – it merely provides guidance.

The Code says that you shouldn’t “overtake on the left or move to a lane on your left to overtake”. The only exception is if the car is in slow-moving traffic and in a lane that’s moving faster than a lane on its right.

In such a scenario, the Code considers undertaking to be a safer option than weaving in and out of the traffic.

Like lying, gossiping and speaking ill of the dead, it’s best avoided – but not illegal as such.


“Trespassers will be prosecuted”, right? Not unless you commit “aggravated trespass”.

This is where you enter private land with an attitude – aiming either to intimidate, disrupt or obstruct lawful activity.

Otherwise, those signs ring pretty hollow. You might as well put a sign on a house-share fridge saying “milk-snatchers will be prosecuted”.

Because of this, it’s against the law to restrain a trespasser. You could be arrested for assault.

There are, of course, exceptions. Taking a stroll around Buckingham Palace, the Ministry of Defence or other Crown and State lands will get you cuffed. The same applies to public railways and airports.

Even unauthorised encampments – where people move onto your land without permission – aren’t illegal. The police advise that landowners experiencing this problem try to resolve the issue face-to-face – and seek a court order as a last resort.

“Aggravated trespass” made the news in August 2023 when a Just Stop Oil (JSO) protester named William Ward threw orange jigsaw pieces onto a tennis court during a Wimbledon game.

Resisting arrest

Viewers of American cop shows know that resisting arrest is illegal over there. In the UK, however, it’s not a punishable offence.

This became part of public discourse in the aftermath of the kidnapping, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens, then a serving Metropolitan Police officer.

The case raised the question of how people – especially women – should be able to tell if an arrest is bogus, and whether resisting arrest would exacerbate the situation.

The law is that while resisting arrest isn’t punishable, Section 38 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 states that an individual can be prosecuted if they commit “assault with intent to resist arrest”.

In practice, this means a person could be charged if they behave violently towards an officer while resisting arrest.

It’s also an offence to try to stop an officer from arresting another person.

Underage drinking

It’s illegal for under-18s to buy alcohol anywhere in the UK. That much is straightforward. It’s also illegal for them to buy alcohol in a pub or restaurant – although a 16- or 17-year-old accompanied by an adult can drink it, not buy it.

However, in England, Wales and Scotland, anyone from five to 17 can drink alcohol at home or on other private premises.

In public, though, the police can stop, fine or arrest underage drinkers. They also have the power to confiscate alcohol.

The issue may one day fall off the public radar as youth drinking continues to decline in England.

Keeping a wild animal as a pet

You’d be forgiven for thinking that keeping, say, a wild boar for a pet would be illegal. But in fact, it’s within the law – so long as you get the relevant licence.

Licences are needed for wild cats, primates, wild dogs, certain pigs and marsupials. You apply to the council for them – but they don’t hand them out willy-nilly.

To get your wild boar licence, you need to satisfy the council that you’ll ensure the safety of both the animal and the public – and that you’ll provide it with “adequate and suitable food, drink and bedding material”.

So if you move into a new property and your next-door neighbour has a pet kangaroo, you don’t need to call the cops – unless you suspect that they’re unlicensed.

Some animals are banned in the UK and you can’t get a licence for them. These include four dog breeds that were bred for hunting or fighting: the pit bull terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro.

Are you looking for expert solicitors in West Yorkshire? Feel free to get in touch for a no-obligation consultation.


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