800 years of the Magna Carta

Today marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, and with much discussion around the Human Rights Act, Morley’s Latin tutor Ian Stone, delves into the history of the Magna Carta, a document that still holds resonance today.

‘No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go against him, nor will we send against him, save by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice’…

Following the result of the general election on 8 May, there has been much talk about the new government’s ambition to abolish the Human Rights Act. What will the consequences of scrapping the Act be? Will it endanger our ‘civil liberties’? What will replace it? Should, indeed, anything replace the Act?

A great deal of the controversy surrounding the Human Rights Act probably stems from a confusion about what the Act actually is; it is, perhaps, one of the most misunderstood statutes of modern time. On this day, particularly, it is worth calling to mind another statute, which is itself greatly misunderstood, but from where civil liberties in this country can perhaps claim ultimate descent.

On this day, eight hundred years ago, King John set his seal to the Magna Carta – the Great Charter. The Charter was a peace treaty, not a profound statement of universal rights. None of the thousands of men stood on the meadow at Runnymede that day could ever have imagined that the Charter would go on to have such a long-lasting influence across the world. In fact, within months of its original confirmation, the Charter had been revoked by the king and condemned by the pope. Yet its thirty-ninth and fortieth clauses, as quoted at the top of this post, could not be silenced.

Society has changed beyond recognition since that summer’s day eight centuries ago, yet we still find Magna Carta entrenched in rights and freedoms across the world.  Those two clauses are especially evident: they are two of only four clauses of Magna Carta which remain on the statute book in the United Kingdom to this day; the seventh article of the US Bill of Rights declares that no one is to ‘be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law’; and article five of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that ‘everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be deprived of his liberty, save in the following cases and in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law’.

The Charter established a principle which is still upheld around the world in many countries which describe themselves as free: namely, the rule of law. No government can simply abolish the Human Rights Act, or any other act, without going through a due process, because just as King John was bound to the Charter’s principles, so even the government is bound by law. One thing is certain, whatever does happen to the Human Rights Act, the first British declaration of the fundamental right to liberty and justice will continue to shape our thinking about the meaning of civil liberties, and the debate about its replacement will start from a simple premise: the rule of law is paramount, and that it is only under the rule of law, that any civil liberties are at all guaranteed.

Today marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, and with much discussion around the Human Rights Act, Morley’s Latin tutor Ian Stone, delves into the history of the Magna Carta, a document that still holds resonance today.

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