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The lie of ‘sovereign individuality’

Five years ago I was working in London a couple of days every week. As many people know, London is like a different country to the rest of the UK, so I wasn’t surprised to observe different working practices, dress codes, and advertising.

This one had me scratching my head a bit:

Billboard advert: "Legal name fraud. The Truth. It's illegal to use a legal name."  Photo via the BBC.

So I looked it up and found that it has to do with ‘sovereign individuality’ and had elements of a classic conspiracy theory. The BBC explains it in more detail here:

When your parents registered your birth on the certificate, it insists, they unknowingly gave the Crown Corporation ownership of your name. “Simply thus, all legal names are owned by the Crown, and therefore using a legal name without their written permission is fraud.”

Does this interpretation of the law have any validity? “Absolutely not. Absolutely none at all,” says barrister, law blogger and lecturer Carl Gardner. “It’s a kind of brew of pseudo-legal ideas. It’s the equivalent of thinking Harry Potter is science.”

It’s back in the news this week after a former professional footballer used the bonkers theory to try and defend himself when found in breach of COVID-19 regulations.

There’s another BBC News article about others who have tried something similar during the pandemic here:

Sinead Quinn owns a hair salon in Oakenshaw near Bradford. She attempted to open the shop during lockdown, putting a sign in the window declaring that Article 61 of Magna Carta allowed her to opt out of the law and that she “does not consent”.

She now owes nearly £20,000 in fines and costs after repeatedly trying to defy coronavirus laws.

Ms Quinn is one of a small number of business owners who have tried to use an obsolete clause in the 800-year-old charter of rights to insist on their freedom to reopen.

Such attempts are part of a larger “pseudolaw” movement – the use of non-existent or outdated legal arguments to defend a case – which goes back decades.

In addition to Article 61, this includes bizarre sounding and legally invalid concepts like “freeman on the land”, “sovereign citizens” and “legal name fraud”.

They’re all based on invalid legal arguments – and on several occasions they’ve resulted in fines and other legal trouble for the people who attempt to use them.

Some might characterise such attempts as a wilful defiance of the law. But according to Ellie Cumbo, head of public law at the Law Society, such cases often arise from ignorance of the legal system, which is then made worse by poor advice found online.

I find all of this fascinating from a digital literacies point of view. People have in their hands immensely powerful computers with fast connections to a vast trove of data. Unfortunately, not everyone has the maturity to use them appropriately. Whether through malice, ignorance, or ‘fun’ there are plenty of people who are willing to come up with, and spread theories to deceive others. The legal name fraud conspiracy theory taps into something deep-seated within some people (and I’d include myself in that group) that the state interferes too much in our lives.

However, as I’ve grown up, I’ve realised that “no man is an island” and that, like or not, we have responsibilities to others. Going to live by oneself as a hermit isn’t really a viable option. What the legal name fraud conspiracy conspiracy theorists are doing is feeding an immature understanding of the world by using pseudo-legal language. I think the teenage version of me might have been taken in, perhaps. For someone as interested in history as I am, it’s an enticing prospect to be able to find a legal loophole via a document that’s over 800 years old.

Ultimately, as ever, if something looks odd, too good to be true, or both, then it usually is. If I were back teaching History, I think I’d use this as Exhibit A as to why both historical knowledge (Article 61 was repealed a year after Magna Carta was signed) and critical thinking are so important. It would also be a good example when trying to teach people about the importance of web literacy.

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