The legal significance of Magna Carta today
Legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg explores the influence Magna Carta has within the UK’s legal system, and asks what the charter means for us today.
There are really only three clauses of the original Magna Carta that are still part of English law today and they are written in such broad terms that the courts can’t really interpret them. They’re not regarded as justiciable. Now some people have tried, they give Magna Carta magic powers. There were protestors camped outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in the winter of 2011/2012 and one of them claimed descent from one of King John’s barons. He said that he was a Magna Carta heir and he was therefore exempted from complying with the ordinary law, well the courts said that chapter 29 with its requirement that the state proceeds according to law is seen as the historical foundational for the rule of law in England, but it doesn’t apply in this case.
I don’t think that Magna Carta does stand up very well to modern statutory interpretation, take the most famous clause of all – no free man shall be imprisoned and so on. Well, what’s a free man? Does it include women? It probably does because that’s what the Interpretation Act says. Does it include people who are not free, whatever that may mean in modern law? Well it probably does because that’s what the Human Rights Acts says. So it probably means that nobody can be convicted or punished except by the law of the land, but we know that anyway. We would have that law without Magna Carta so it doesn’t really add very much.
Magna Carta is important because of what it stands for more than what it says. Take Lord Bingham, one of the most distinguished judges of recent times, he said the significance of Magna Carta lay not only in what it actually said but perhaps to an even greater extent in what later generations claimed and believed it had said. Sometimes, he said, the myth is more important than the actuality.
I think King John would have been surprised that the charter he sealed at Runnymede 800 years ago has become such a powerful and influential document. It was one of many charters around at the time, it was annulled within a couple of months because it had been extracted by duress, only a few sentences from it remain on the statute book. But because of what it stands for, it is important. The themes that we have derived from it, perhaps even read into it, are so fundamental that I think we’re right and fully entitled to be celebrating it today.
Narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, this animation takes you back to medieval England to explore the tyranny of King John, the frustrations of the barons and the significance of the charter’s original clauses. - video
Over the centuries Magna Carta has influenced kings and statesmen, lawyers and lawmakers, prisoners, Chartists and Suffragettes. But how did this old piece of parchment become such a powerful symbol of our rights and freedoms? Narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, this animation explores Magna Carta’s 800 year legacy. - video
Professor Justin Champion and Geoffrey Robertson QC discuss the reinvention of Magna Carta in the 17th century and its use against the Stuart kings. They explore Magna Carta as a legal document, its use as a symbol against tyranny, and the role of Sir Edward Coke. - video
‘If we allow the Human Rights Act’s destruction, the precious house of rights we’ve built together will come tumbling down.’ Reflecting on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, Shami Chakrabarti warns us that today’s human rights legislation is under threat.
For 800 years, Magna Carta has inspired those struggling for rights and freedoms, and many of its core principles are echoed in contemporary human rights legislation. Here Professor Hugh Starkey explores Magna Carta’s legacy as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Geoffrey Robertson QC charts the history of jury trials and their relationship to Magna Carta. From medieval justice to the trial of Charles I, and the trials of John Lilburne to the Human Rights Act, discover the evolution of one of the most venerated features of Anglo-American law.
Why does Magna Carta matter 800 years after it was first sealed? Looking at Magna Carta as a document of historical and legal significance, Professor Justin Fisher explores the evolution of our rights and freedoms, and examines the relevance of the Great Charter today.