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.

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