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Five innocent springtime activities that could land you the wrong side of the law

Legal experts from The University of Law explain the risks behind some common spring pastimes.

As millions across the UK head for the great outdoors this springtime, a legal expert at The University of Law (ULaw) has warned against some common spring pastimes which could land you the wrong side of law.

Studies have shown a correlation between warmer weather and an increase in crime rates[1], particularly violent crimes and burglary, but what about those seemingly innocent activities many of us could be guilty of? Nick Ross, law lecturer at ULaw breaks down some of the most common springtime crimes – along with their consequences: 

Flower picking

Nothing says springtime like a vase of fresh daffodils or wildflowers in the house. However, be careful where you pick from, or you could end up led away in handcuffs – as two young girls found out in 2011 while picking flowers on a walk with their parents[2].

Flower picking is covered under two acts of legislation: The Theft Act of 1968 and The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981.

Under s4(3) of the Theft Act 1968;

A person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not (although not in possession of the land) steal what he picks, unless he does it for reward or for sale or other commercial purpose.

The section is designed to ensure that if you pick wild flowers, you cannot be guilty of theft unless you do so with the intention of selling them for commercial purposes. This only applies to flowers growing wild, so it is possible to steal flowers from a person’s garden or flowers that are being cultivated or grown for example in a floral display in a park.

There are also certain wild plants that are protected and it could be an offence to pick, uproot or destroy them under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Stripping off in the sun

While temperatures aren’t soaring just yet, it’s important to know the rules when it comes to sunbathing – especially if you plan to strip off to avoid tan lines.

It may be surprising to find out that topless sunbathing is perfectly legal for both men and women in the UK.

Full public nudity is also not a crime but only if the person who strips off has no intention to cause alarm or distress. There are specific offences relating to intentional exposure.

A person who commits a lewd, obscene or disgusting act could be guilty of outraging public decency. Similarly, if a person intentionally exposes their genitals with the intention that someone will see them and be caused alarm or distress, they could be guilty of an offence under s66 Sexual Offences Act 2003. So naturists who do not intend for people to be alarmed would not be committing an offence whereas person who intentionally exposes their genitals would.

People can also be prosecuted under The Public Order Act 1986. Section 5 of the Public Order Act states that a person is guilty of an offence if they use threatening (or abusive) words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress.

For those hoping to catch some sunshine in the garden these same rules still apply. It’s advisable to let the neighbours know this is what you’re planning or find a part of the garden shielded from view, so you can avoid causing any unnecessary shock or a call to the police.

Getting frisky al fresco

Speaking of stripping off, as the weather warms up some couples may wish to take to the great outdoors to find a little romance.

Getting caught having sex in a public place could very quickly land you with criminal charges including (but not limited to) indecent exposure and public lewdness as previously stated.

If there is an expectation of privacy, for example in an isolated part of the countryside, this is much less likely to land you in hot water with the law than a public park, for example.

Either way, it’s still very risky business.

Disposable BBQs

Home Office data last year showed disposable barbecues were responsible for around 4% of wildfires in the UK, prompting some major supermarkets to stop sales along with a petition to ban them entirely gathering almost 30,000 signatures[3].

While a blanket ban hasn’t yet happened, there are a range of measures in place to police and monitor the usage of disposable barbecues, which can be risky to wildlife and surrounding areas.

Local councils will have varying rules on this. Bradford and Brighton for example both introduced bans in recent years, threatening a fine of £100 for anyone found using disposable barbecues in public spaces.

So, be sure to check the rules in your local area and if you are using one of these types of barbecues practice the utmost caution.

The “right to roam”

Some areas around the UK such as moors, heaths and downs are commonly referred to as “open access land” meaning you have a right to access even if it is privately owned. You must be careful though because there are some rules that you must abide by or risk a run in with the law.

Between the 1st March and 31st July in order to protect ground nesting birds, dogs must be kept on a lead no longer than two metres. Dogs must also be kept on leads at all times around livestock,  It is also prohibited to drive, camp, play water sports or take any other animal than a dog onto open access land but you can use access land for horse riding or cycling if the landowner allows it, public bridleways or byways cross the land or there are local traditions or rights of access.

Nick Ross continues, it can be easy to get a bit carried away when the sun comes out in the UK, but it is so important to be aware of the rules, so you don’t ruin your own fun by being taken away in handcuffs.

“There are lots of laws we are very aware of and adhere to strictly, however it is these lesser-known offences that can often catch people out and land them with hefty fines or even a criminal charge. Always check the rules in your local area and if it feels risky, then it probably is.”