15 June 2015
Human Rights Solicitor on the Magna Carta's 800th Anniversary
Today marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta or 'Great Charter' – drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King John and a group of rebel barons led by Robert Fitzwalter as they met at Runnymede.
The Magna Carta has a unique place in English legal and political history as 'our unofficial constitution' and is often cited as a document founding individual liberty and rights. It inspired the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Lord Denning famously stated it was “the greatest constitutional document of all time – the foundation of freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”
From a Hotchpotch of Clauses to a Flagship Symbol for Human Rights
The reality, as is often the case, is that the Magna Carta was actually more of a 'hotchpotch' of clauses ranging from fishing weirs, to the prevention of men for being arrested or imprisoned on the testimony of a woman as well as the more often cited clauses regarding taxation and trial by one's peers. Its purpose was to define the medieval relationship between monarch and barons, rather than being an overarching theory of the rights and liberties of all citizens. In fact, that myth was created during the 17th century when those opposing the absolutist Stuart monarchy were searching for a document to flourish to bolster their cause and duly dusted down the Magna Carta and reinvented it as the document championing the rights of the individual over the king.
Since then, the Magna Carta has become the flagship symbol of the principles of trial by jury, the right to a fair trial and habeas corpus.
There are actually only three clauses that currently survive – the freedom of the English church, the ancient liberties of the City of London and the right to due legal process or “that no freeman should be imprisoned… but by lawful judgment of his peers.”
The Magna Carta and the Human Rights Act
In my mind, it doesn't really matter what the original purpose of the Magna Carta was – or who wrote it. What matters is how it captured the popular imagination of people over the centuries and became an iconic symbol of individual liberty and the principle that no one – not even the king – is above the law of the land. Its legacy has become deeply associated with the principles of democracy, liberty and human rights.
The idea that the king is not above the law has developed over the centuries into the principle that the government or the state is not above the law and nowhere is this principle more clearly embodied in my view than in our Human Rights Act 1998.
In October 2000, the Human Rights Act incorporated into English law the European Convention of Human Rights, a legacy of the Second World War and our very own Winston Churchill, who vowed that never again should such atrocities as the holocaust be allowed to happen in a democratic and free world.
The Human Rights Act enshrines in our law a number of fundamental rights, including for every person in this country the right to life, the right not to be tortured or enslaved, the right to a fair trial and the right to a private and family life. My colleagues and I at Slater and Gordon have used it over the years to protect and defend the rights of some of our most vulnerable clients – people who have been sexually abused, children in care, the elderly and the mentally ill.
So, it is deeply ironic that in this 800th anniversary year of the Magna Carta, the newly-elected Conservative government has announced plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a UK or British Bill of Rights.
Now, human rights have a bad press in this country – often associated with the rights of alleged terrorists and criminals – whereas the rights of others who have used the Act, such as many of our clients, are rarely mentioned in our sensationalist press.
So, in some respects, I am not totally averse to the rebranding of our Human Rights Act to a British, or UK, Bill of Rights if the practical result of such a facelift is an increase in its popularity amongst ordinary people. But on no account should any rebrand weaken or dilute any of the basic rights and freedoms in the Human Rights Act. That would be a betrayal of the legacy of the Magna Carta and all those who, since its conception, have fought in whatever way for our rights and freedoms in this country.
Individual rights and freedoms are precious and must be cherished, defended and passed onto the next generation. Let's use the anniversary of the Magna Carta to ensure we don't lose our current bill of rights without a fight.
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