Mock the Week: Magna Carta style.

Just a brief little post on news which I thought was interesting to note. As someone who desires to work in the field of constitutional/public law, I would have been judging myself if I had not written a post about this.

This year marked the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (also word to the wise: it is simply ‘Magna Carta’ or ‘The Great Charter’; there is no need to include ‘the’ before the Latin) and for a history/legal buff such as myself, I have found reading all the articles dedicated to discussing the historical impact and cultural relevance of Magna Carta to be fascinating.

Fun Fact, part one: you can read the English translation of Magna Carta here, should you so desire.

Fun Fact, part two: if you want to read up on some Magna Carta background and facts, why not check out Dan Jones’ article here.

I simply find the history to be interesting and worthy of remembering. Not to mention, of course, that this Charter laid the foundations for the constitutional/administrative/public law today.

Proving that the end of the anniversary celebrations is a far bit off yet, today came the news that history will be re-enacted, per se. A mock trial of barons and bishops is to be held in the Palace of Westminster on the 31st July. The event has been organised by Magna Carta 800th anniversary commemoration committee and the UK Supreme Court, and the ‘verdict’ will be published on the Supreme Court’s website.

The TV presenter, comedy writer and qualified barrister Clive Anderson will play a leading role alongside a number of top legal figures. The idea is that a ‘trial’ will be held in front of Lord Neuberger (President of the Supreme Court), Justice Stephen Breyer (of the US Supreme Court), and Dame Sian Elias, (Chief Justice of New Zealand). Essentially, the A-Listers of the Legal World.

Lord Neuberger has stated that:

“Judges never usually comment before a case but in this instance, I think I can safely make an exception.

“We will be deciding whether, setting aside the global impact of some of the ideas embedded in Magna Carta, the barons’ actions in 1215 could be justified in law.

“We can’t promise a polished theatrical performance, but we do hope to offer a creative and interesting way of retelling the great Magna Carta story that encourages people to think about the battle of wills and principles that lay behind this world-famous treaty.”

I personally think this is a great idea, promising to be a lively and informative event. How better to fully understand the importance and significance of the Carter, than by seeing it technically come to life on a very modern stage? Surely this will go some way in proving the continuing relevance of Magna Carta, too.

Whisper it, but perhaps the very background i.e. the reasoning of the barons is of topical relevance? See recent comments and accusations regarding the lack of democracy present in recent EU undertakings for example, whether over TTPA or when tackling Greece’s financial woes.

Flashback: a quick musing on the Charter: its inception, history and reflection now abounds.

A King lost the battle with his barons and concede to their demands, and the document he signed laid the beginnings of legal foundations which exist even today. What isn’t there to admire and find interesting?

It was King John who lost the battle, when his own barons forced him to grant Magna Carta, that great charter of liberties in 1215 at Runnymede meadow . For the first time in the country’s history, the King was placed under the law, having to actually adhere to it. The rule of law was born.

The attempt of Magna Carta to impose the law’s limitations on a ruler is found in Chapter 39:

No free man shall be taken or imprisoned, or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.

Little wonder then that Law students such as myself learn how this charter, agreed by King John and confirmed in definitive form by Henry III in 1225, is a crucial, living document for England’s history, and most likely the best known of all documents surviving from medieval England.

Over time, Magna Carta was viewed as sacrosanct, and statutes conflicting with it were ruled invalid; a statute enacted under Edward III in 1369 declared that, ‘if any Statute be made to the contrary, that shall be holden for none.’ Yet, by the mid-fifteenth century, Magna Carta slipped into the shadows of high politics where it would remain until the seventeenth century, and the custom of periodic royal confirmations ended early in Henry VI’s reign. The reigns of the Yorkist and Tudor monarchs saw strong reassertion of royal sovereignty, most noticeably under the rule of Henry VIII, and although people never entirely forgot Magna Carta, they no longer rallied around it. The Charter’s ties to the common law confirmed its enduring importance, however, and the land-holding classes looked to it as a key protector of their property. Regardless, by the end of the Middle Ages, the Charter was cited less frequently – because statutes spelling out its principles afforded added protection against an arbitrary king, binding him to act ‘according to law’ or by ‘due process’ or ‘process of the law’, and obviously this was rather unacceptable for the reigning monarch.

All was not lost, however. Magna Carta took a central role in the seventeenth-century conflict between King and Parliament:  lawyers and parliamentarians alike turned to a mythical ‘ancient constitution’ as a defence against Stuart kings’ assertion of the royal prerogative – the beginnings of our modern constitutional law. Once revived and discussed the Charter took off. The stalwart defender ad advocate of the doctrine of the ancient constitution and the revival of Magna Carta was one Sir Edward Coke – yes, remember him from Constitutional law lectures, fellow Lawbies?

Coke advocated the creation of the English constitution as a chain of royal confirmations of English law, stretching right back to the age of Edward the Confessor and beyond. He viewed the Great Charter as a reaffirmation of liberties enjoyed by the English people from time immemorial and still binding because of its many confirmations over the centuries. As such, he repeatedly urged Parliament to demand a royal reconfirmation. Coke, and his like-minded friends, were convinced the clauses of Magna Carta reaffirmed the apparent long-standing and expected rights of the English people, for example trial by jury and the right of habeas corpus. And, proving that history does indeed repeat itself, Magna Carta was enshrined once more, following on from the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89. This culminated in the deposition of James II and establishment of Parliament’s supremacy – hence the  suggestion of history repeating itself, as it does appear rather similar to the original baronial rebellion against King John. The settlement following William and Mary’s accession included a Declaration of Rights, which was enacted by Parliament – as a new Magna Carta.

Magna Carta is not only an inspiration text in itself, for it inspired many a law. I can recall from first year, sitting in a Constitutional Law in Context tutorial (my friends and I nicknamed it ‘ConCon Law’ because the full title was rather a mouthful) and being one of the few who knew what ‘habeas corpus’ meant. The Habeas Corpus Act 1679 is not the origin of the writ of habeus corpus; Magna Carta is – see back to chapter 39, as mentioned above. The 1679 Act, in seeking to define and strengthen the prerogative writ of habeas corpus – a procedural device by which the lawfulness of a prisoner’s detention is examined – stems from the Charter.

So, as we students sit in the back of lecture halls in the early mornings, and desperately fight back a yawn, we should remember that have a lot to thank Magna Carta for. And,  when we watch read the verdict of this ‘mock trial’ we should allow ourselves to dwell on the history of this rich text, and wonder what it must have been like at the time of the Charter’s signing.

History is from the past, and the Law may seem like a distant, dry realm. But history enriches the law, which is living and breathing as it surrounds us. We should remember that too.


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