Activists are now handing out ‘writs’ as part of the trend drawing on non-existent ‘common law’ and ‘sovereign citizen rights’ movements to ‘overturn’ constitutional laws.
Photo: An anti-lockdown protest in April 2021. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock
Ministers accused of fuelling conspiracy theorists’ bogus ‘common law’ ideas
Government attacks on judges and lawyers are fuelling distrust of the courts and encouraging bogus notions of ancient “common law” being pushed by conspiracy theorists, according to the Law Society.
The use of bogus interpretations of common law to portray courts, fines and regulations, particularly in relation to the Covid-19, as invalid or wrong is becoming an increasingly common strand across the full spectrum of extremist groups, ranging from anti-vax conspiracy theorists to the far right.
The trend – which draws on non-existent common law and has seen activists handing out fake legal “writs” at schools and hospitals as well as alleging crimes by doctors and journalists – was a factor this week during the harassment of the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, when extremists in viral footage of the incident could be heard yelling at him to “protect the constitution”.
It briefly brought what is a fringe theory into the public eye, and the movement is growing at pace on social media channels, anti-vaccine newspapers and in the real world. Training classes in bogus common law are being held around the country by a range of groups, in some cases run by military veterans who are blending it with training in civil disobedience tactics.
One group is running classes around the country at up to £20 a person to train “an army of common law constables” who are “mandated to uphold constitutional laws” by exercising arrests and attending where the “rights of members are subject to intervention from bailiffs, council employees or police officers and other agencies”. It claims to have trained 850 “constables.”
Beyond the activities of extremist groups, the bogus theories have gained traction among members of the public such as a York hair salon owner who was fined thousands of pounds after attempting to keep her business open during lockdown by putting a sign in the window citing article 61 of Magna Carta.
However, legal figures warned that a number of factors may be fuelling the growth of the bogus theories, while experts on extremism warned of the potential long-term risks for the growth of activism which regarded courts, authorities and the government as illegitimate.
Ellie Cumbo, head of public law at the Law Society, described what was being propagated as a “wildly out of date” notion of the law which had been superseded by the modern court system and civil procedure rules.
In terms of such beliefs taking root, she added: “You might ask whether some government rhetoric around judges, such as during the Brexit debate and the case relating to the prorogation of parliament, has played a role.”
Cumbo cited media coverage such as a Daily Mail headline describing judges during the Brexit debate as “enemies of the people” as well as a description in a Home Office video – since removed – of lawyers providing advice to migrants as “activist lawyers”. The Law Society has said the description was “misleading and dangerous”.
Boris Johnson, who heavily criticised the supreme court in 2020 after judges ruled that his decision to suspend parliament was unlawful, has also previously claimed delays in the criminal justice system should be blamed on “lefty human rights lawyers”.
Cumbo suggested that a programme of civic and constitutional education in schools, universities and adult education – recommended by the independent Human Rights Act review – could help to counter distrust and the fake interpretations of the law.
However, others voiced concerns about the language used by politicians and the media. Sailesh Mehta, a barrister who also sits as a part-time crown court judge, said attacks on the rule of law were a worrying trend, including the vilification of judges, lawyers, the law and political opponents.
He added: “A relatively recent variation has been an unjustified denial of the applicability of some laws and a reliance on ancient outdated laws (or even a made-up law) which the protester prefers to be bound by. If enough people subscribe to this pick-and-mix approach to law, then there will be an erosion of the rule of law which binds all democratic societies together.”
Tim Squirrell, the head of communications at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said the modern bogus common law movement had roots in US sovereign citizen movements, making its way to the UK via Canada. It had two strands, one revolving around resistance to the state and another focusing on pseudo-legal litigation to avoid paying income tax or debts.
“It can boil down to a claim that by a clever sleight of hand you can get out of everything and that is really resonant with a lot of the conspiratorial thinking around Covid, that the vaccine is fake, lockdown is illegitimate and there is a duty to wake others up.
“But concerns about it come along two lines. One is around the direct action in the form of harassment of politicians and others, citizens arrests and a pseudo-legal framework. If people believe they are vested with the power of the law then it can lead to them believing that they can enforce it.
“Secondly, there might be less worry in the UK that the whole movement could turn violent, but there is always the potential for individuals who act, whether by citizens’ arrests or something else. Wherever you have real conflict with the state there is also the potential for the creation of a martyr, particularly in a febrile political environment.”
What is common law and why is it being misinterpreted?
What is common law?
It is the system of law – used in the UK as well as in many places that used to be part of the British empire – based on precedents from judge’s decisions rather than in statutory law.
Common law is made by judges who study reports of older cases which have been decided and then derive principles from them that will be applied by other judges in future.
What are the bogus common law beliefs?
They vary, but activists and others believe they can draw on Magna Carta and ancient English law to challenge or ignore regulations and even bring politicians, scientists and journalists before supposed common law courts for “crimes”.
Such courts have not legal existence, nor do bogus writs, which anti-vaccine activists have been “serving” at schools and hospitals, calling for the administration and promotion of Covid-19 vaccines to be halted.
Common law writs or common law courts do not exist, nor do “common law constables”, which some activists have been “training” in order to form physical barriers against what they wrongly believe are the “unlawful” actions of the police and other legitimate authorities.
Where did it come from?
The modern bogus “common law” movement had roots in US sovereign citizen movements, emerging in the 1970s and gaining prominence as it merged with the growth of rightwing militias.
It made its way, via Canada, to the UK, where proponents have ranged from fringe political activists who have attempted to promote it by standing for office through to others attempting to set up “shadow” police forces. Others included pro-Trump supporters who attempted to stage a citizen’s arrest of Sadiq Khan in 2018.
What has happened recently?
Proponents of the bogus common law became more bellicose in the run-up to Brexit. However, the belief has been turbocharged on social media and has found a bigger and more receptive audience among those seeking reasons to disobey or ignore lockdown regulations during the pandemic.
A plethora of new, anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine groups are promoting it, including in some cases running bogus “courses” alongside training in civil disobedience techniques.
Some have attempted to disrupt vaccination centres by claiming that police are carrying out criminal investigations into the work after activists entered stations and made allegations. Police stress that reference numbers provided on these occasions to activists, who post footage on social media, do not mean there are investigations.
The sovereign citizen movement has become the bane of many police officers in the U.S.
Feb 10, 2015
The sovereign citizen movement has become the bane of many police officers in the U.S.
These people feel that due to some contrived loopholes in the constitution they can declare themselves free and laws do not apply to them. However, people who get their legal advice from Wikipedia find out these loopholes don’t tend to actually exist.
For many officers, a traffic stop will be a likely way to encounter one of these people. Please do not take them lightly. Most sovereign citizens are basically law-abiding people, albeit highly misinformed about how the law works. However, some sovereigns have proved a willingness and ability to be violent. If you suspect you are dealing with a sovereign citizen as a LEO, please call for backup.
If you read any sovereign literature, they advocate trying to confuse and befuddle the police. Their mantra is to make a cop so confounded the officer just decides to end the contract before he/she becomes more perplexed.
1. “I AM NOT DRIVING, I AM TRAVELING.”
Often the sovereign citizens don’t bother to pay for their licenses. They feel the right to free movement means they do not need a license. Travel is a right, which is true.
What the sovereigns fail to grasp is they are free to travel, by foot, by bike, even by horse. A car is a complex machine. To operate a complex machine requires training and some licensure to operate said machine. Heck, here in Wisconsin all our driving laws are worded with “operate a motor vehicle”; none say “drive.”
2. “AS A FREE PERSON, I DO NOT RECOGNIZE THE JURISDICTION YOU HAVE BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH…”
At some point, a sovereign citizen will say they are a free person. As a free person, they are not subject to any local laws and are “free of any legal constraints,” including taxes and fines.
What they fail to grasp is that they want all the protection of local government without paying the cost for it. Ask a sovereign what they would do if their child was hurt. Ask if their house was on fire how they plan to put it out? Their response is always to call 911. It is a funny, eye-opening experience to point out that 911 and the fire/EMS service is a local, tax-funded entity. So if they are a free person, well maybe 911 is something they are free to keep away from as well — as in no ambulance and no fire trucks for them because they are not paying for the service.
3. “SPEEDING IS NOT A CRIME; A CRIME REQUIRES AN ‘INJURED PARTY.’”
In their twisted view of the law they feel ordinance violations are not valid because there is no victim. Yet they forget we have different levels of legal violations in this country.
Here in Wisconsin most, traffic and other minor violations are ordinance violations. Not a crime, but a civil forfeiture. Thus, no “injured party” is needed. It is a civil matter, not a criminal matter.
4. “AS A FREE PERSON, YOUR LICENSE PLATE TAXES DO NOT APPLY TO ME.”
It seems some sovereign citizens will make their own license plates for their cars. These plates will display terms like “US Constitutional Plate,” “Exempt: Sovereign Neutral Non-Combatant,” “Sovereign Christian Citizen.” or any of some other non-legal terms. They feel they are exempt from the ‘illegal’ tax on car ownership.
These sovereigns love to use legal terms and talk about contracts. They forget the nice roads they “travel” on have to be paved and, in the winter, plowed. Point out to them that there is a social contract between the people using the roads and the people keeping the roads open for travel. Someone needs to pay for the cost of the roads, so license plate costs are not a tax, they are a user fee.
5. “AM I BEING DETAINED?”
The sovereign citizens and the CopBlock movement both love this question. People who got their law degrees by reading Facebook comments feel that being detained is the same as an arrest. Yet real lawyers can explain the difference between the two.
Yes, a traffic stop is a short investigative detention. An officer with reasonable suspicion that a violation has taken place may stop someone for a short time to establish facts related to that violation. How brief that short time will be is decided solely by the citizen. If they want to play games, they are the one making the contact last longer.
Remember, sovereign citizens have the propensity for violence. Make sure you have backup. Keep your eyes open for threats. Just because they are dumb enough to get brainwashed into some crazy belief system does not mean they are too stupid to learn tactics to hurt us.
Their tactic is to cause confusion with the officer. Turn the tables on them and confuse them. Make them question what they have learned by watching videos on YouTube. Twice I have used the example of the fire department on a sovereign citizen. Both times they were so flummoxed they forgot all the other rhetoric.
About the author
Uniform Stories features a variety of contributors. These sources are experts and educators within their profession. Uniform Stories covers an array of subjects like field stories, entertaining anecdotes, and expert opinions.
by Desmond K
What is a Sovereign Citizen?
Sovereign citizens believe that they have a right to decide for themselves what laws of the land they will obey. Sovereign citizens follow their own common law set rather than federal or state statutes. They may not pay taxes, drive on a public road, accept a social security number, buy insurance, and refuse to use federally regulated money (i.e., U.S. dollars). These practices led the Southern Poverty Law Center to classify them as domestic terrorists in 2015.
The Sovereign Citizen Movement has caused quite a stir in many Western countries. Lawmakers have challenged the legality of being a sovereign citizen. This article will explore this concept and look at some of the legal matters involved. [Source]
Sovereign citizen is a “catchall phrase referring to various anti-government individuals and groups. They share some common beliefs and behaviors. The organizations to which many sovereign citizens belong have a variety of names:
- Moorish Nation,
- The Aware Group,
- Washitaw Nation,
- the North Carolina American Republic,
- Republic of United States of America.
Freeman may embrace the same views, Freemen on the Land, Sons of Liberty, and Aryan Nation” [Source].
Sovereign citizens describe themselves as “living people” or “natural people.” They claim to break the bondage to corporates by avoiding restrictions. These include specific rates, taxes, and fines.
Is being a Sovereign Citizen legal?
The sovereign movement managed to stir up some problems for policymakers in various countries. It caused delays in certain legal proceedings. They also challenged other policies but did not permanently dent the legal systems. Sovereign citizens “claims have been consistently rejected by courts in various countries. They have been rejected in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand” [Source]. This means they do not have any ground to stand on when it comes to the legality of their vision or aims.
Does this make being a sovereign citizen is illegal?
Sovereignty does not apply here! As a sovereign citizen, you cannot avoid taxes or fines. There is no legal standing to be a sovereign citizen.
Do Sovereign Citizens ever win in court?
Sovereign citizens’ tactics may confuse or exhaust public officials or delay legal proceedings. Their arguments are never upheld in court. [Source].
The shared view is that sovereign citizens’ arguments that cannot be backed up by actual statute law, the Constitution, or common law. They are unlikely to win a case in court.
Some sovereign citizens in court have used unusual tactics — such as filing nonsensical legal documents. Some even declare that they are not parties before the court because they don’t recognize U.S. law. They refer to themselves instead as “sovereign citizens of the State of Alabama.”
What is the most extreme example of a Sovereign Citizen?
A case of an extreme and dangerous sovereign citizen was David Russell Myrland of Seattle, Washington. He brought a gun to a party and shot at police officers who were trying to evict him from his foreclosed home. Six people died, including two police officers [FBI]. This is not how being a sovereign citizen is supposed to be. At best, one might have some trouble with the law, but nobody should be killed or hurt over it.
Do Sovereign Citizen pay taxes?
Yes, sovereign citizens pay taxes. Being a sovereign citizen has nothing to do with avoiding or not paying taxes. Their belief of being free people who do not conform to the demands of governments, such as paying taxes, does not exempt them. They are yet to succeed in courts to have their views adopted as legal in nations’ laws, and they exert a lot of effort in going against the Constitution. These citizens wish not to pay taxes, but under the current regulations, everyone has to pay taxes, so sovereign citizens pay taxes [Source].
How many people are involved in the Sovereign Citizen Movement?
The number of the sovereign citizens is unknown. Estimates vary widely, from 100,000 to 300,000 in the United States as of 2010.
Being a sovereign citizen is not legal, even though they are not defined. The number of people involved in the movement is limited. Their aims are known worldwide. This means spreading awareness about this movement by debunking it could help reduce their popularity.
Sovereign citizen paperwork
The ucc 1-308 sovereign citizen – UCC 1-308 points to Section 1-308 of the Uniform Commercial Code titled “Performance or Acceptance Under Reservation of Rights.” UCC 1-308 states: A party that with explicit reservation of rights performs or promises performance or assents to performance in a manner demanded or offered by the other party does not thereby prejudice the rights reserved. Such words as “without prejudice,” “under protest,” or the like are sufficient” [Source]. Sovereign citizens use it to support their rebellious act against corporate governance and the nation’s laws.
How to declare Sovereign citizenship UK
To declare sovereign citizenship, one has to break away from the corporate shell. This is done by filing documentation with their secretary of state’s office saying yourself sovereign. They may sign it with red blood or ink thumbprints. The final step is having a new sovereign identity published in the newspaper [Source].
A person must also remove evidence of U.K. citizenship. They relinquish their Nation Insurance number, Driver’s license, Car registration, Marriage license, Voter Registration, and Birth Certificate. [Source].
Sovereign Citizen Identification Card
A Sovereign citizen identification card differs from one group to another. Most of them will have a person’s name, which states that they are a sovereign citizen, home address, date of birth, I.D. Number [Source].
“When asked to provide a name, it’s common for a sovereign citizen to respond that they don’t have a name or they may identify themselves as “the representative of…(their legal name).”
If you do receive a name, it may be a sovereign name. These are often compounded with “El” or “Bey”. The compound is intended to denounce their association with the name provided them by a government entity.” [Source] This means the identification card is linked to this descriptive name.