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The Most Surprising Differences Between Laws In The U.S. And The U.K.

29/03/2017 16:40 BST | Updated 29/03/2017 16:40 BST

What are some surprising differences in laws between the US and the United Kingdom? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Michael McGraw-Herdeg, Site Reliability Engineer:

A few that have struck me as surprising over the years:

  • Libel: In the US, if someone accuses you of lying about them in print and sues you, they need to prove that what you said was false. UK libel law reverses the burden of proof: when suing someone for libel, it's up to the defendant to prove that what they said was true. More specifically, to win a libel case in the UK, the plaintiff only needs to demonstrate that the statement hurt their reputation; unlike in most situations in the US, they don't also need to prove that the statement was false. A UK defendant can, of course, mount a defense that "it was true," which is helpful if they can prove it.

    Also, in the UK, if (1) you are sued for libel, and (2) you are a newspaper, and (3) you are not a member of a particular special press oversight organization that most newspapers have refused to join, then you may be legally required to pay the attorneys' fees for the person who filed the lawsuit, even if you win the case and are found to have done nothing wrong. (This provision of law has not yet taken effect; the legislation passed after the Leveson Inquiry.)

    See English defamation law - Wikipedia, The cost of libel reform, and American and British Defamation Suit Comparisons for more.

  • Jaywalking: In the US, if you cross the road and there is not a marking that says you are allowed to cross the road, you are usually breaking the law. The enforcement of jaywalking is wildly inconsistent in different parts of the US. (You're more likely to get a jaywalking ticket in southern California than in, say, New Hampshire.)

    In the UK, there is no "jaywalking" offense. You can cross the road whenever you want; just be careful, for heaven's sake! UK media occasionally explain this crime to readers who plan to travel abroad; see the BBC's What every Brit should know about jaywalking for a prime example of the piece.

  • Birthright citizenship: If you are born on US soil, you are an American citizen, full stop (more or less).

    If you are born on UK soil, this does not automatically confer citizenship; there must be other circumstances, for example, you get citizenship if born in the UK and if at least one parent is a citizen or permanent resident.

    The American policy of unconditional jus soli is relatively unusual.

  • Food service: Egg-washing requirements are just totally backward in the US vs. the UK. See an excellent writeup of this at Why American Eggs Would Be Illegal In A British Supermarket, And Vice Versa. American grocers must sell washed eggs and typically refrigerate them; UK grocers must sell unwashed eggs and rarely refrigerate them. Or for another angle on the fridge thing, see Why The U.S. Chills Its Eggs, And Most Of The World Doesn't.
  • Land: Property ownership is subtly different in the UK vs. the US. In England and Wales, all land ultimately belongs to the Crown. Then it's very common for someone to have a "freehold," which means they own a particular parcel of land. Quite commonly, the freeholder is different from the person who owns a house with a mortgage and so on. This difference happens most often for people who own properties that come in multiple units, e.g.: a flat, a subdivided house, or sometimes a terraced house.

    Many people in living situations that the US might consider "homeownership" are in the UK in a situation called being a "leaseholder." They own a home (typically a flat or a subdivided home), and as part of the deal, they also pay an annual "ground rent" to the freeholder. Someone who owns a house as a leaseholder probably has a very long lease term (many decades). When they go to sell their house, if the lease term is less than about 80 years, the buyer will typically demand they negotiate an extension with the freeholder before finishing the sale.

    None of this happens too often in the US; we obviously don't have Crown land ownership, but we also don't use the freehold/leasehold structure very much. Typically in the US, someone who is a "homeowner" owns both the house and the land it's on. (Not always; I've heard of on-campus fraternities at MIT whose houses have a 99-year lease from the school.) Now, the US does have its own unique quirks surrounding homeownership. Sometimes people own part of a house, like a co-op or a condominium. In that case, they pay similar "maintenance fees" that are sort of like ground rent. And then sometimes in the U.S., you get this oft-maligned entity called a "homeowners' association." This is kind of an amazing setup where tens of millions of houses being sold in the US come with an encumbered deed that says "If you own a house on this land, you agree to become part of a private organization called an HOA that gets almost unlimited say over what you can do with the land and an almost unlimited power to collect taxes or fees and seize your house if you don't pay." American HOAs are effectively a shadow layer of small private governments. Like any small government, good ones run like a smooth machine or a tight-knit family, and bad ones run like a Kafkaesque nightmare or a toxic family. The explosive popularity of HOAs is a peculiar and entirely American phenomenon; the UK does not have the same thing.

  • Council tax: In the UK, if you are renting a flat from someone, you owe "council tax," a local tax that pays for local services. In the US, if you are renting an apartment from someone, you don't owe local property taxes. (Some US cities have other local taxes for residents which are separate from housing costs.) This lack of taxes surprised me a little bit. I grew accustomed to living in an apartment in the US and having someone else handle all the associated tax bills; whereas when renting in the UK, I typically paid a user fee for the local council services I was using.

Bear in mind that these are broad characterizations of the laws; the real systems are much more subtle.

Also, keep in mind that there are lots of different jurisdictions. Although the UK broadly has certain legal customs, English law differs in significant ways from, say, the law in Northern Ireland. Similarly, US law has a certain feel to it, but local practices vary widely -- and certainly California law is very different from Louisiana law!