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(Footrule, Jan 2001)

The October issue of The European Journal carried a brilliant article entitled "Compulsory Metrication: Weighing up Human Rights" by Chris Ballinger, who is researching a doctorate in political science at The Queen's College, Oxford. We are privileged to print the following excerpts.

" There has been no attempt in the United States to prevent traders altogether from using imperial measures, because completing metrication in this way would almost certainly raise constitutional issues. Whilst Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution grants Congress the powers "to fix the standard of weights and measures", it is by no means certain that this power could be employed to compel metrication, as freedom of commercial speech is protected by the Constitution's First Amendment. It is possible that a similar conclusion could obtain in Europe under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

If expressing a desired quantity of goods in pounds and ounces is deemed equivalent to speaking in a particular language, then the European Convention on Human Rights may provide a ray of hope for imperial traders. Article 10 of the ECHR protects freedom of expression, including the freedom "to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority".

There are necessary exceptions to Article 10, but as constitutional expert Geoffrey Marshall noted in "Public Law" in 1996, to advertise and sell goods in imperial units does not seem to act against the interests of national security, to promote disorder, to endanger public health or morals, to threaten the reputation of others, or to undermine the authority or impartiality of the judiciary.

The likeness of different systems of weights and measures to different languages is reinforced by Section 1 to the Weights and Measures Act (1985) (as amended[?]), where a phrase book is provided. It defines one pound as being exactly 0.45359237 kilogram; one yard as 0.9144 metre; one pint as 0.56826125 litre. Dr Howells confirmed to the House of Commons that retailers are to apply this phrase book - customers may continue to ask for a pound of apples but retailers have to measure out 0.45359237 Kg of apples.

It would seem that a set of scales calibrated in pounds is precisely equivalent in law to one calibrated in divisions of 0.45359237 Kg. If this were not so, the retailer who served a customer with 0.45359237 Kg of apples when asked for 1 lb would be failing to supply the customer with the goods requested. Why then is it illegal for Messrs Thoburn and Herron to use their imperial scales to weight orders placed in imperial units? Any prosecution would effectively seeking to convict them for supplying the advertised quantity of their goods. This is the sort of trial to which only A.P.Herbert could do justice."

Sir Alan Herbert (1890 - 1971) was a barrister, MP, comic poet and librettist, best known for exposing legal absurdities. Were he alive and active now he would still find much absurdity to which to draw attention.

Design & Layout S-Print 2001. Text copyright of individual contributors