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Tuesday 6 June 2023 Dublin: 14°C
Screengrab via YouTube Ben Gilroy of Freedom From All Debt, and Pat Dunne, the deputy sheriff, argue over an eviction outside a home in Laois last week
Column Ignore the conspiracy theories - the household charge must be paid
There is an increasing amount of gibberish masquerading as legal fact about things like the household charge, writes Fergal Crehan. It’s dangerous and it needs to end.

IN THE PAST few months, an email has been circulating, purporting to contain legal advice regarding the Household Charge from McCann Fitzgerald, one of Ireland’s leading law firms. The same text has more recently been circulated in leaflets pushed through doors around the country. The “advice” is to the effect that nobody has to pay the Household Charge, because

This household charge is a Statute, otherwise known as an Act of Government and only carries the force of law upon you if you consent to it… a statutory instrument is a contract. If you register for this “charge” you are consenting to this statute i.e. signing the contract.

For anyone wondering why this seemingly important legal information isn’t more widely known, the answer is clear: it’s a conspiracy, man.

The courts know this and the last thing they will do is tell you. In fact they will hide this from you at every opportunity they can. On the other hand, if you tell them, they will accept it because they know it is actually true

Anyone with a bit of legal knowledge will immediately understand that this is gibberish. This is why McCann Fitzgerald this week issued a statement denying any connection with the email and leaflet.

Similar pseudo-legal language was heard this week when a video of an attempted eviction in Co. Laois did the rounds. An assistant sheriff arrived at a house near Mountrath to execute an order for repossession obtained by Ulster Bank in the High Court after the owner of the house failed to make mortgage repayments. The deputy sheriff was met by a number of activists, who ultimately saw him off. The most vocal of the activists subjected him to a lecture in law which would sound suspect to the ears of any first year law student, let alone a practicing lawyer. The important thing to note from the video is that the deputy sheriff left in frustration, not because he was legally outfoxed. The court order stands, the sheriff will be back, the house will be repossessed.

This kind of thing is becoming increasingly common. People are turning up in court and insisting that laws don’t apply to them. Posters, newspapers and flyers propounding this idea are becoming more and more common around our cities and towns. The internet, of course, is riddled with the stuff. Worse, because media outlets don’t feel qualified to make judgement calls on the validity of legal “arguments”, it is often reported uncritically.

All of this is evidence of the increasing prominence of a fringe conspiracy theory known as the “Freeman On The Land”. This theory insists that only the common law applies to individuals, but that laws made by the governments or parliaments are only invitations to contract. If you don’t contract with the State, the acts of the Oireachtas don’t apply to you, and you are a “Freeman on The Land”. This is not a political position – freemen aren’t saying this is what the law ought to be, they’re saying this is what the law actually is. The Man won’t tell you about it, but if you confront Him with the truth, He will be forced to admit that the game’s up. Why a vast international conspiracy would suddenly capitulate upon hearing these magic words has never been explained. Also, it has never happened.

The Freeman movement developed fairly recently, and seems to have originated with the publication in 2005 of a book entitled (deep breath) “How I clobbered every bureaucratic cash-confiscatory agency known to man … a Spiritual Economics Book on $$$ and Remembering Who You Are”.  This book cites David Icke as a source, though even Mr. Icke’s followers think the Freemen are a bit wacky.

Unlike most conspiracy theories, which are based on wilful misinterpretations of actual facts, much of the Freeman theory is entirely made up. Take the information card below.

Quite simply, none of it is true. The government doesn’t trade for profit, income tax is not voluntary, birth certificates are not traded on the bond market.

Returning to the Household Charge, the Local Government (Household Charge) Act 2011 applies to everyone, as do all acts of the Oireachtas. It says who has to pay the charge. It provides that non-payment is an offence, punishable by a fine. It allows local authorities to prosecute non-payers. It also provides that unpaid charges are a charge on the property, meaning you’ll have to discharge the arrears in order to sell the house. If people get away with not paying, it will be because it was too much trouble to prosecute them all, not because of a magic loophole.

We don’t need to enter any contract to be subject to laws. The Social Contract doesn’t exist, it is a metaphor. You might as well ask to see the captain of the Ship of State, or demand a swatch of the Fabric of Society. But then Freemen are oddly literal-minded, as Mr. Bobby Sludds displayed recently.

Mr. Sludds, or “Bobby of the Family Sludds”, as he prefers (this is another Freeman quirk. They don’t accept the names The Man gives them) was charged in Wexford District Court with the latest in an impressive string of traffic offences. He demanded to see the judge’s oath, though an oath is a form of words, not a physical object. He went on to deny there was any such person as “Boddy Sludds” and shortly thereafter found himself in Cloverhill prison. It took an application to the High Court (this time playing by the rules) and an admission as to his identity before he walked free. He was later convicted of all charges. The State may be a fictional entity, but it owns the prisons, and they are all too real.

So what is a law and what makes it real? There are entire fields of jurisprudence and philosophy that attempt to answer this, but in practice, a law is whatever the State says it is. There is literally not one single instance, worldwide, of Freeman arguments ever succeeding before a court, and that surely is the only test. Inventing your own law is a bit like inventing your own language – there’s not much point unless you can persuade everyone else to join in.

The Freeman theory is the legal equivalent of quack medicine. It’s often hilarious, but it can be dangerous. There are a lot of frightened and vulnerable people out there, and as with quack medicine, the attraction of a simple solution is great. Given the current public mood, anything that seems to stick it to The Man has an appeal.

I’m not happy with endless government charges or with banks repossessing houses, anymore than anyone else is, but if people put trust in this guff, some of them will find themselves in jail. There are Free Legal Advice Centres all around the country, staffed by lawyers who, contrary to cliché, offer their services free of charge. Anyone considering following the advice the Freemen might consider taking a trip to their nearest law centre first.

Fergal Crehan is a barrister

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