The Relevance of the Magna Carta for our Human and Civil Rights Today is a research report written by Dr Machteld Inge van Dooren, LL.M. and published in the Human Rights Office Reports series (no. 6), June 2015 (ISSN 1874-0391)
Below is the Conclusion of the Report.
How did the Magna Carta, granted by King John in 1215, acquire its important status of a root document for human rights law, and in what way is it still relevant for our own human and civil rights today? These are the two questions that were considered in this report. Although the Magna Carta was not intended to be a root document for human rights law it contains elements that we also find in the human rights documents of modern times.
Human rights are rights that every human being is entitled to simply because he or she is a human being. They are inalienable. All human beings need to see certain basic needs fulfilled to survive and live a humane and dignified life and function properly in society. Human rights are an instrument for the fulfilment of those basic needs. The only way to protect the needs and rights of individual human beings against abuse of power by governments is for that power not to be absolute. This is the principle of the rule of law: the government of a state itself is subject to the law, no one is above the law. This is true in particular with regard to that part of the law that covers the most basic essentials for human life, including the right to life, liberty, fair trial and access to justice. In fact there is a mutual interest for both individuals and governments in the recognition of those rights: a government cannot retain its position of power if it does not recognise the most basic rights of those under its jurisdiction. This is what King John had to acknowledge in 1215. In his attempts to collect money and men for his war against France he breached old customary rules. When he lost the war a group of his barons rebelled against him and forced him to recognise the old rights and customs. To restore peace King John agreed to grant the liberties and rights laid down in the Magna Carta. Within months however he had it declared void by the Pope and both he and the barons resumed the civil war.
The Magna Carta only survived because after King John’s death in 1216 it was reissued by William Marshal as governor for the young King Henry III. This time the Magna Carta was really granted freely. The new King made it clear that he wanted to adhere by the principles of the Magna Carta, by the rule of law. This was confirmed by the reissue under his own seal in 1225. Even though it was done in exchange for payment of taxes it meant that he had to abide by some basic principles if he wanted his subjects to accept his government. Moreover, the rights and liberties of the Magna Carta were granted to all rather than just a specific group of the King’s subjects.
King Edward I, the successor of Henry III, was requested to confirm the Magna Carta. Although he did not want to give more concessions on top of that he made it clear that he wanted to uphold the Magna Carta. He realised he had to confirm the concessions, rights and liberties granted by his predecessors. The basic principle that the King himself was bound by the law had by now become firmly established. The fact that the Magna Carta was placed on the statute roll in 1297 and that it has remained on the Statute Book to this day confirms and enhances this effect of the Magna Carta.
Till the early 1400s the Magna Carta was confirmed many times. Acts of Parliament were adopted to interpret or redefine clauses of the Magna Carta. In the 15th and 16th centuries the document was not referred to very often. However from the 1600s lawyers, specially Sir Edward Coke, started to attach a lot of significance to it. Major work was also done by Sir William Blackstone in the 1700s.
The Magna Carta inspired the colonies in America and they used it in the process that led to the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. All men are created equal, even the King cannot take the inalienable rights and liberties of his subjects away and the law has to reflect the will of the people. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, proclaimed in France after the revolution, included similar ideas.
After the Second World War a new era started: rather than documents that give rights to individuals in the context of their own state we now see the drafting of international documents. In the context of the United Nations and the Council of Europe representatives of states worked together on documents that lay down the inalienable rights of all human beings that should be recognised by any state. The first of these was the Universal Declaration of Human rights of 1948. After that, various human rights treaties followed.
It has been argued that too much is being read into the Magna Carta if it is regarded as a document declaring the freedom of every individual. However, although the rebelling barons did not intend to make King John agree to a document with such farreaching consequences, they gave the document the potential of a wider and more fundamental declaration by getting the King to accept that he had to respect certain basic rights of his subjects. In that way the Magna Carta can be regarded as a root document for human rights law.
The Magna Carta is still relevant for our human and civil rights today not only because it reflects the basic principle of the rule of law, but also because some of its clauses are echoed by international provisions of human rights law. Most of the clauses of the Magna Carta have been repealed or replaced by statute law. However, clauses 39 and 40, which have remained valid as clause 29 of the 1225 version of the Magna Carta, are still of major importance from the point of view of human rights law. They cover the rights to liberty, fair trial and access to justice. These rights are also covered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and they have a prominent position in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of 1966 and the European Convention of 1950. These treaties, with legally binding force for all states that have ratified them, spell out many legal details of those rights. Important is that they are explicitly recognised as rights that every single human being is entitled to without discrimination of any kind. The European Convention offers most protection because of the fact that it includes a Court that can issue binding judgements in cases brought by individuals against the states under whose jurisdiction they fall. The ICCPR has a Committee with similar powers but its decisions are not binding.
So at the international level governments have realised too that basic human rights have to be recognised and that they themselves are subject to the rule of law. That is where we arrive when we trace the development of the Magna Carta from a peace treaty in 1215 to a root document for the human rights treaties of the 20th and 21st centuries. Of the utmost importance is the implementation of these rights at the national level. One of the ways to achieve this is the incorporation of international human rights provisions into UK law, so that individuals can invoke the rights included in those provisions in their own national courts. The 1998 Human Rights Act has done this for the European Convention, although there are some limitations and the very Act itself has recently been made a matter of discussion. In the year of the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta the right message would be to strengthen the Human Rights Act and to incorporate other human rights treaties into UK law as well, starting with the ICCPR. The ICCPR and the European Convention are the treaties that deal with the Magna Carta rights of liberty, fair trial and access to justice most clearly. And even in our modern societies there are still issues with these rights. Examples are pre-charge detention of terrorism suspects, detention of aliens and cuts with regard to legal aid. In such cases the value of the Magna Carta as a document of principle is undiminished.