Freeman on the land
The freeman-on-the-land movement, also known as the freemen-of-the-land, the freemen movement, or simply freemen, is a loose group of individuals who believe that they are bound by statute laws only if they consent to those laws. They believe that they can therefore declare themselves independent of the government and the rule of law, holding that the only "true" law is their own idiosyncratic interpretation of "common law".
Freemen claims have been argued in the courts of the United States, Australia and Canada but have always been rejected. Their doctrines are similar to the sovereign citizen movement, which is more prevalent in the US.
There is some cross-over between the two groups which call themselves Freemen and Sovereign Citizens (and some others). The origins of both lie in the radical and racist anti-government movements in the US in the 1960s and 1970s, with the ideas garnering more support during the American farm crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s and a financial crisis in both the US and Canada in the same period.
With the advent of the Internet and continuing during the 21st century, people throughout the English-speaking world who share the core beliefs of these movements (which may be loosely defined as "see[ing] the state as a corporation with no authority over free citizens") have been able to connect and share their beliefs. There are now followers in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.
The pseudolegal ideas used originated with the Sovereign Citizen movement in the United States, and then around the turn of the 21st century began to be used by the Freeman on the Land movement in Canada. By the late 2000s they had also started to spread to Freeman groups in the UK and other Commonwealth countries, and to various groups in Europe.
In 1937, R. Rogers Smith published Alberta has the Sovereign Right to Issue and Use Its Own Credit, which argued that the British North America Act and the Statute of Westminster 1931 did not make Canada an independent nation, but left it a British dependency, and that the constitutional division of powers between the Canadian federal government and provincial governments was not defined. In 1945, Walter Frederick Kuhl MP delivered a speech in the House of Commons of Canada in which he argued, based on Smith's theories, that the Canadian constitution was defective and needed to be amended.
In the 1950s, Gerrald Hart, an electronics shopkeeper from Winnipeg, engaged in anti-tax efforts that included submitting tax returns that rejected liability instead of correctly reporting his shop's tax liabilities. In The Queen v. Hart Electronics Limited, Hart was charged with failure to file a tax return. The Manitoba Court of Appeal acquitted Hart, ruling that his unsigned, unusual tax return was still a tax return, and refused to consider whether the tax return was adequate. Hart also claimed that the Supreme Court ruling in Nova Scotia (Attorney General) v. Canada (Attorney General) (1951) SCR 31 meant that income tax acts passed by the Canadian government since 1971 were unconstitutional. He published the Hart System of Effective Tax Avoidance that described his strategies to avoid taxes.
In the early 1990s, Murray Gauvreau worked with social credit group Pilgrims of Saint Michael to promote tax protester strategies based on Hart's System of Effective Tax Avoidance via the organisation's Michael journal. Gauvreau's arguments, based on filing defective tax returns, as well as constitutional arguments based on the division of powers, were rejected by the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta.
In the 1980s and the 1990s, fiscal misconception conspiracy theories similar to those found in American tax protester movements were also adopted by Canadian tax protester groups. In 1999, arguments based on the constitutional division of powers, earlier used by Hart and Gauvreau, were further developed by Robert A. Marquis in his book Fraud, Deception, Manipulation, but failed to mention that these arguments had already been rejected by Canadian courts.
Detaxer movement (1998)
Around 1998, Canadian pilot Eldon Gerald Warman, who was exposed to American pseudo-legal concepts, promoted ideas adapted from the American sovereign citizen movement in Canada by organising seminars via his Detax Canada website. He claimed to be subject only to "common law", referring not to modern case law, but to historical English case law. He credited as his mentor American activist Roger Elvick, who had founded the redemption movement in the United States; the redemption movement adhered to the strawman theory, which is based on the assertion that state legislative authority only extends to an individual's legal person, and not to their natural person. Warman claimed that whereas in the United States, an individual's Social Security Number was used to attach this "strawman" to a natural person, in Canada, this was done using a birth certificate. Around 2000, Warman also worked with Ernst Friedrich Kyburz and Sikander Abdulali "Alex" Muljiani to promote anti-tax ideas, based on the Sovereign citizen movement's beliefs, at joint seminars across Canada. He also used misinterpretations of Canadian case law to justify unrestricted automobile use.
Warman asserted that government authority over an individual arises from a contract, that statute law cannot be used to impose on a person a contract that deprives the individual of property rights and freedom to travel, and that individual rights and liberties derived from Anglo-Saxon common law, as well as Magna Carta. He instructed his followers to use disclaimers in income tax returns, to reject correspondence from the Canada Revenue Agency and to refrain from citing the Constitution of Canada in court, to avoid entering into an assumpsit contract. He asked them instead to deny the "strawman", claim "common law" jurisdiction, and otherwise claim the right to silence. Warman also used pre-Detaxer arguments to assert that the Canadian constitution was defective, and proposed a new constitutional document, the Magna Carta Kanata. However, he criticised other pre-Detaxer strategies and suggested that they were secretly sponsored by the Canada Revenue Agency itself.
In 1999, Warman attempted to use these pseudo-legal arguments to assert that the Provincial Court of British Columbia did not have jurisdiction over him in R v Warman (2000) BCPC 0022, after he was charged with assaulting a police officer. On denying Warman's appeal, the British Columbia Court of Appeal noted that his arguments were based on a rejection of state and judicial authority.
A number of anti-state movements with similar tactics but different ideologies may receive the label "Freeman-on-the-Land".
In Canada, four other anti-authority factions have been identified:
- the Detaxer movement, which has its focus generally limited to escaping tax payments through pseudolaw;
- sovereign citizens, who are more akin to the right-wing leaning US groups;
- the Moorish Divine and National Movement, which is an African-Canadian/American variant of sovereign citizens believing they constitute a separate nation within Canadian borders; and
- Indigenous groups and those claiming inauthentic indigenous identities, such as one person who attempted to use pseudo-law and bullying to usurp the council of the Squamish Nation.
Nine classes of adherents of Freeman-on-the-Land and similar anti-authority groups in Canada have been identified:
- fantastical believers, who operate in an alternative frame of reference that may be difficult to distinguish from mental illness;
- conspiracy theorists, whose paranoid worldview is rich in blame to outside entities;
- escapists, who want autonomy and tend to be loners;
- dabblers/opportunists, who see the movement as a chance to get out from under sudden setbacks including family or financial problems;
- sympathizers, who share the ideologies and anti-government views, but continue to fulfil their obligations and do not engage in confrontational or pseudolegal tactics;
- the committed, with active, ongoing anti-authority conflict, which may or may not have started with a sudden event like the dabblers/opportunists;
- violent extremists, who are rare, but move past pseudolegal tactics;
- entrepreneurs, who exploit other adherents by means such as "money for nothing" schemes or providing pseudolegal services or documents for a fee; and
- gurus, either with an established following or developing one, who seek visibility in the movement with their take on world events and pseudolaw theories.
Associate Justice J. D. Rooke, in his Meads v. Meads 2012 decision, describes the freeman on the land movement as having "libertarian and right wing overtones". In a 2019 article of the Alberta Law Review, Donald J. Netolitzky disagrees with this assessment, which he considers a confusion between the freeman on the land and sovereign citizen movements : according the Netolitzky, a sociological study has shown that, while very hostile to state and institutional actors, the freeman on the land population is predominately left leaning. He stresses, however, that freemen on the land are ideologically heterogeneous and are "less an organization or “movement” than a collection of individuals who hold powerful anti-authority beliefs". Given the "amorphous" character of the "freeman" population, there is a "broad overlap" between their beliefs and those of the sovereign citizens, which leads to confusion between the two.
In Australia, there is some cross-over between groups which call themselves Freemen on the Land (FOTL) and sovereign citizens (and some others). There have been several court cases testing the core concept, none successful for the "freemen". In 2015, the New South Wales Police Force identified "sovereign citizens" as a potential terrorist threat, estimating that there were about 300 sovereign citizens in the state at the time. Sovereign citizens from the US have undertaken speaking tours to New Zealand and Australia, with some support among farmers struggling with drought and other hardships. A group called United Rights Australia (U R Australia) has a Facebook presence, and there are other websites promulgating Freemen/Sovereign Citizen ideas.
From the 2010s, there has been a growing number of Freemen targeting Indigenous Australians, with groups with names like Tribal Sovereign Parliament of Gondwana Land, the Original Sovereign Tribal Federation (OSTF) and the Original Sovereign Confederation. OSTF Founder Mark McMurtrie, an Aboriginal Australian man, has produced YouTube videos speaking about “common law”, which incorporate Freemen beliefs. Appealing to other Aboriginal people by partly identifying with the land rights movement, McMurtrie played on their feelings of alienation and lack of trust in the systems which had not served Indigenous people well.
The core beliefs of both sovereign citizens and freemen have been broadly defined as "see[ing] the state as a corporation with no authority over free citizens". Freemen's beliefs are largely based on misunderstandings and wishful thinking, and do not stand up to legal scrutiny. Freemen arguments have been rejected in the courts of England and Wales.
The Canadian case Meads v. Meads (see below) identified five major themes in the Freeman-on the-Land belief systems:
Exemption from jurisdiction
A number of arguments are employed to claim immunity from law. These arguments are described in Meads as "magic hats", but there has been limited use of the term since.
Many freemen beliefs are based on idiosyncratic interpretations of admiralty or maritime law, which the freemen claim govern the commercial world. These beliefs stem from fringe interpretations of various nautical-sounding terms, such as ownership, citizenship, dock, or birth (berth) certificate. Freemen refer to the court as a ship and the court's occupants as passengers, and may claim that those leaving are "men overboard".
Freemen will try to claim common law (as opposed to admiralty law) jurisdiction by asking "Do you have a claim against me?" This, they contend, removes their consent to be governed by admiralty law and turns the court into a common law court, so that proceedings would have to go forward according to their version of common law. This procedure has never been successfully used.
Freemen will often not accept legal representation, believing that to do so would mean contracting with the state. They believe that the United Kingdom and Canada are now operating in bankruptcy and are therefore under admiralty law. They believe that since the abolition of the gold standard, UK currency is backed not by gold but by the people (or the "legal fiction of their persons"). They describe persons as creditors of the UK corporation. Therefore, a court is a place of business, and a summons is an invitation to discuss the matter at hand, with no powers to require attendance or compliance. They may believe that the government controls secret bank accounts in their name as part of this theory, which may be accessed to pay off debts.
Everything is contractual
Freemen believe that statute law is a contract, and that individuals can therefore opt out of statute law, choosing instead to live under what they call "common" (case) and "natural" laws. They believe natural laws require only that individuals do not harm others, do not damage the property of others, and do not use "fraud or mischief" in contracts. Freemen believe that since they exist in a common law jurisdiction where equality is paramount and mandatory, the people in the government and courts are not above the law, and that government and court personnel therefore must obtain the consent of the governed. Freemen believe that government employees who do not obtain consent of the governed have abandoned the rule of law. They believe this consent is routinely secured by way of people submitting applications and through acts of registration. They believe the public servants have deceived the population into abandoning their status as freemen in exchange for the status of a "child of the province" or "ward of the state", allowing those children to collect benefits such as welfare, unemployment insurance, and pension plans or old age security.
Freemen believe that the government has to establish "joinder" to link oneself and one's legal person. If one is asked whether one is "John Smith" and one says that is so, one has established joinder and connected the physical and human persons. The next step is to obtain consent, as they believe that statutes are merely invitations to enter a contract, and are only legally enforceable if one enters into the contract consensually. Otherwise, they believe that statute laws are not applicable. Freemen believe that the government is constantly trying to trick people into entering into a contract with them, so they often return bills, notices, summons and so on with the message "No contract—return to sender".
Silence as consent
A "notice of understanding and intent and claim of right" is a document used by freemen to declare their sovereignty. The signed document, often notarised, is sent to the Queen and possibly other authorities such as the Prime Minister and police chiefs. It usually begins with the words "Whereas it is my understanding" and goes on to state their understanding of the law and their lack of consent to it.
A common belief is that people have two parts to their existence: their body and their legal "person". The former is joined to the latter by the birth certificate; some freemen claim that it is entirely limited to the birth certificate. Under this theory, a "strawman" is created when a birth certificate is issued, and this strawman is the entity who is subject to statutory law. The physical self is referred to by a slightly different name, such as "John of the family Smith" instead of "John Smith".
Money for nothing
An implication of the strawman theory is that there is some government-controlled account linked to a person through the birth certificate. The redemption movement, now commonly called "Accept for Value" and abbreviated "A4V", suggests that the value of that account can be applied to financial obligations and even criminal charges.
- In the Canadian court case Meads v. Meads, Alberta Court of Queen's Bench Associate Chief Justice John D. Rooke used the phrase "Organised Pseudolegal Commercial Arguments" (OPCA) to describe the techniques and arguments used by freemen in court, describing them as frivolous and vexatious. In refuting each of the arguments used by Meads, Rooke concluded that "a decade of reported cases, many of which he refers to in his ruling, have failed to prove a single concept advanced by OPCA litigants".
Dennis Larry Meads of Edmonton, Alberta, abruptly left a hearing in the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta on 8 June 2012, related to his divorce and matrimonial property case. In response, Associate Chief Justice John D. Rooke wrote a lengthy and comprehensive 185-page judgment rejecting various freemen, redemption and sovereign citizen claims, grouping them with other pseudolegal arguments as "Organized Pseudolegal Commercial Arguments" (OPCA), specifically, in this case, Meads' freeman on the land claims, arguments and documents, saying that:
The bluntly idiotic substance of Mr. Mead's [sic] argument explains the unnecessarily complicated manner in which it was presented. OPCA arguments are never sold to their customers as simple ideas, but instead are byzantine schemes which more closely resemble the plot of a dark fantasy novel than anything else. Latin maxims and powerful sounding language are often used. Documents are often ornamented with many strange markings and seals. Litigants engage in peculiar, ritual‑like in court conduct. All these features appear necessary for gurus to market OPCA schemes to their often desperate, ill‑informed, mentally disturbed, or legally abusive customers. This is crucial to understand the non-substance of any OPCA concept or strategy. The story and process of a OPCA scheme is not intended to impress or convince the Courts, but rather to impress the guru's customer. [emphasis in original]
In a subsequent ruling on another OPCA case, Gauthier v. Starr, 2016 ABQB 213, Justice Rooke noted that, following the ruling, Mr. Meads had abandoned OPCA strategies and concluded the litigation in an orderly fashion.Meads v. Meads has since been used as case law against pseudolegal tactics by courts in Canada as well as in other Commonwealth countries.
- Wilfred Keith Thompson and two others were arrested by police in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, charged with breaking, entering and theft as well as firearms offences. Thompson had previously made headlines for informing City Hall, local police, Guelph MP Frank Valeriote, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other officials he is "an autonomous being not controlled by others". One of his co-defendants, Trevor "Red" De Block, refused to identify himself to the court, though it was said that his criminal mug shot, computer records, tattoos and other information confirmed his identity. "I object," De Block said, adding that he was not the "rightful owner" of his name, but refusing to clarify or participate in legal proceedings. "I don't bow down to bail . . . to false gods," he said, and rejected assistance from the appointed lawyer. Thompson and De Block were denied bail.
England and Wales
- Elizabeth Watson came to public attention in 2011 as a self-styled legal adviser for Victoria Haigh in a (child) custody case; she was given a nine-month prison sentence for contempt of court (later suspended). She had defaced court documents by writing the words "no contract" and otherwise refused to accept or acknowledge the authority of a court of law, by among other things refusing to respond to the written legal notices or other correspondences from the court, and styling and addressing herself and Haigh in irregular fashion as "Elizabeth of the Watson family" and "Victoria of the Haigh family" respectively, instead of their names in the normal and usual mode of rendering.
- Mark Bond of Norfolk, England, was arrested in 2010 for non-payment of tax, despite handing police a "notice of intent" stating that he was no longer a UK citizen. He told police that the notice had already been delivered to the Queen and the prime minister. He told the Norwich Evening News, "Today I asked the judge to walk into the court under common law and not commercial law. If I had entered under commercial law it would prove that I accepted its law. I was denied my rights to go in there." He was sentenced to three months custody, suspended on condition that he pay off the debt at £20 a week.
- Dean Marshall of Preston, Holderness, near Hull, East Yorkshire, England, was taken to court after he was found to be growing 26 cannabis plants in his garden shed. Claiming he was a freeman on the land and therefore not guilty, he then attempted to call up Queen Elizabeth II and (the prime minister) David Cameron as his witnesses, although he was told that neither was available to attend. A jury at Hull Crown Court dismissed his claims and convicted him of conspiracy to produce cannabis for which he was given a 12-month prison sentence, suspended upon entering into a good behaviour bond for two years, and was ordered to carry out 150 hours of unpaid work.
- Doug Jones of Pembroke Dock, Pembrokeshire, Wales, spent 22 days in prison after refusing to take a breath test. Jones questioned the authority and jurisdiction of the court, asking to see the judge's 'Oath of Office' which resulted in a sentence of fourteen days for contempt of court. He was sentenced to a further seven days after failing to attend a second hearing, but pleaded guilty to the original charges, receiving an endorsement on his driving licence. His interest in the freemen on the land movement started after watching documentaries on conspiracy theories surrounding the September 11 attacks and London bombings. His solicitor, Phillipa Ashworth, stated "On this occasion, in hindsight he appreciates it was not the time to test out philosophical theories behind this approach to life, and in hindsight it isn't something he would do again."
- Gavin Kaylhem of Grimsby, North East Lincolnshire, England, wilfully refused to pay his council tax debts of £1,268.54 accrued between 2001 and 2008 and was sentenced to 30 days' imprisonment. He had claimed that he was a "freeman" and thus had no contractual duty under common law to pay. He refused to co-operate with magistrates' questions.
- Mandeep Sandhu of Tividale, Sandwell, West Midlands, was stopped by police while driving a car that was insured to a woman. He refused to give his details to the officers, saying that to do so would mean "entering into a contract he could not afford to fulfil". He refused to co-operate at the police station and when brought before Sandwell Magistrates' Court, in October 2015, Sandhu was convicted of driving without insurance and obstructing police and was also found in contempt of court. He was sentenced to 14 days in prison for the contempt, and ordered to pay £330 in fines for the insurance charge with court costs and had 6 points added to his licence. A spokesperson for West Midlands Police said:
The whole process meant that a simple matter of driving without insurance took up hours of police time – and ultimately a stint behind bars after being convicted of contempt of court while defending himself. We hope this case acts as a warning that to obstruct the police and the courts is not a wise move.
- Errol Denton, a live blood analysis practitioner, was charged with offences under the Cancer Act 1939. At Westminster Magistrates' Court, he used a freeman defence. Since both the prosecution and the defence were rare, it was reported in the press. On 20 March 2014 he was convicted on all nine counts and fined £9,000 plus around £10,000 in costs.
- In June 2019, a man who refused to register his son's birth under the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 lost an appeal to the London High Court after using a freeman defence. He cited an obscure law, the Cestui Que Vie Act 1666, and argued that registering the birth would be equivalent to "an entry into a ship's manifest", in which the child becomes "an asset to the country which has boarded a vessel to sail on the high seas", thus causing him to become controlled by the state. The judge ruled that the local council had the right to step in as the child's "institutional parent" to register the birth.
- Cases have also been reported in Gloucestershire and Somerset.
- Bobby Sludds appeared in court in County Wexford in Ireland, charged with various motoring offences including two counts of no insurance. Before the police began to give evidence, the accused handed in a letter stating he was not Mr. Sludds but Bobby of the family Sludds and questioning the use of the word 'person' in the charge. He was given two suspended sentences and a fine of €670. (He had 24 previous convictions for motoring offences.)
The following court cases have been based on the Freeman argument:
- Essenberg v The Queen B54/1999 (High Court of Australia, 22 June 2000)
- Australian Competition & Consumer Commission v Rana (Federal Court of Australia, March–April 2008)
- R v Stoneman (Supreme Court of Queensland,30 July 2013)
- Van den Hoorn v Ellis (District Court of Queensland, 30 November 2010)
- Glew v White (Supreme Court of Western Australia, 10 July 2012)
- Elliott v Commissioner of Police (District Court of Queensland, 25 July 2014)
- Bradley v The Crown (Supreme Court of Queensland, 13 November 2020): In 2019, Ross James Bradley appeared in the Brisbane Magistrates Court, in Queensland, Australia, after he was stopped by police and found to be driving without a licence. He was fined A$150 after he argued that police had no power to charge him or commence proceedings before the court. Bradley appealed to the Queensland District Court, arguing that he was a "sovereign citizen" and the laws of Queensland did not apply to him. Justice Sofronoff noted that, given this argument it was difficult to understand why Bradley was "agitating his claims before this court, one which was established under the laws he says do not apply to him". The judge noted that the "paradox was apparently lost" on the applicant and dismissed the appeal.
Lawyers and notaries in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada, have been warned by their professional bodies about dealing with freemen as clients. In particular, lawyers have been advised to be careful not to stamp or notarise the pseudo-legal documents that freemen typically use, so as not to create a perception of authority for such documents.
U.S. police, both speaking personally and as official guidance, have provided advice to law enforcement on dealing with the similar sovereign citizen movement. These have noted the need for caution after a case in which two policemen were murdered by a "sovereign citizen" during a traffic stop.
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