The Australian Law Journal has been recording and analysing legal developments since it started publishing in 1927. Alongside wide-scale changes in the law, it also includes some of the law’s more interesting quirks and unexpected developments. We’ve had a look through the online backset on Westlaw AU to find some highlights.
In 1951, the ALJ published a short note recording the long-overdue repeal in the United Kingdom of the 1735 Witchcraft Act.
The Witchcraft Act, 1735, which makes it an offence to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration and which is phrased in amusing, if not archaic terms, has so far survived, notwithstanding the onslaughts of the reformers. It seems, however, that it is likely to fall in the near future.
There was agitation for its repeal following R. v. Duncan ((1944) 1 K.B. 713) in which a “medium” and her associates were charged with conspiring “to pretend to exercise or use a kind of conjuration…”
A new Bill known as the Fraudulent Mediums Bill has now been introduced into the House of Commons by private members and has reached the second reading stage. The Bill provides for the punishment of persons who fraudulently purport to act as spiritualistic mediums or to exercise powers of telepathy, clairvoyance or other similar powers. The amusement-loving public will be pleased to know that anything done solely for the purpose of entertainment is excluded from the Bill and is not made an offence.
When R v Duncan was first handed down, the ALJ outlined some history of the laws relating to witchcraft (see 20 ALJ 369), and noted that the Witchcraft Act 1735 was first enacted in response to “the drowning of an old woman at Tring, in Hertford, by her too credulous neighbours who suspected her of witchcraft and apparently applied the test of ‘witch-swimming'”.
This Act provided that “persons pretending to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration, or undertaking to tell fortunes, or pretending occult or crafty science to discover where any goods supposed to have been lost might be found, should be punished with a year’s imprisonment and standing in the pillory for an hour once a quarter”.