Although the Middle Ages isn’t renowned as the greatest era for human rights, the Magna Carta was written during that period and is revered and venerated as one of the earliest and most influential documents in the common law.
It was sealed in 1215 by King John, who was a military failure and not a particularly popular leader. John was out of money and, contrary to custom, he didn’t consult the powerful barons before raising taxes or inventing new ones. The barons got together and wrote a list of things they wanted the King to do.
Unsurprisingly, his royal highness didn’t want his divine power curtailed – and the only reason he finally gave in and signed the Magna Carta was that the barons raised an army against him.
June 15 was the anniversary of the document, but what is the legacy of the Magna Carta 800 years after it was written?
1. The right to a fair trial
The right to a fair trial is something that may be taken for granted in western countries.
That right is embodied in the 39th clause of the Magna Carta, which purports to give all free men the right to a fair and speedy trial, declaring “to no-one will we sell or deny or delay right or justice.”
The Magna Carta was instrumental in America when the Bill of Rights was being written in the eighteenth century. While not legally enshrined in any modern statute, the right is still an important principle in the Australian legal system.
2. Protection against indefinite detention
Habeas corpus is the remedy for people detained unlawfully. It is embodied in chapter 29 of the Magna Carta which states that no one is to be imprisoned except by lawful judgment. The clause was intended to ensure that detained persons would have access to a court to determine the lawfulness of their detention instead of languishing in custody indefinitely.
That principle is a central part of our criminal justice today – although there are several recent exceptions. One such exception is preventative detention orders, which allow a person to be detained for weeks without charge.
3. Trial by Jury
Although trial by jury has attracted a great deal of criticism over the years, it one of the rights we inherit from the Magna Carta. Chapter 39 of the document says that a person cannot face legal sanction except “by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”
To this day, Australians have a right to a jury trial if charged with an offence that goes to the District or Supreme Court. The right is enshrined in section 80 of our constitution.
Despite ongoing debate about whether the pros of the jury system outweigh the cons, a trial by jury offer some citizen involvement in the criminal justice system – while at the same time curbing the extent to which government and non-elected judges have power over criminal proceedings.
4. Women’s rights
Criminal law aside, the Magna Carta also offered benefits for women. According to Chapter 7 of the document, a woman was entitled to her marriage portion and inheritance after her husband died. The dowry was set at 30 per cent of all the lands that the husband owned. And she was not to be forced to remarry if she preferred not to after her husband’s death.
Of course, we have clearly come a long way since the middle ages, but it is interesting to see that the Magna Carta offered some good news for women, especially considering that the document was created by a bunch of men.
5. Freedom of the Internet?
The Magna Carta has become a symbol of the limitations of government power generally, and some have called for a ‘digital Magna Carta’ to keep the government from censoring and otherwise interfering with the internet. One of those voices is the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee, who is a strong opponent of government interference with the internet.
So while it’s unlikely that any sane person would quote paragraphs of the Magna Carta to a judge or police officer today, the document remains influential in ways never imagined by its original creators.