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Celebrating the Magna Carta

This issue of LawTalk is dated 19 June 2015 – exactly 800 years after King John of England fixed his seal to the Magna Carta. LawTalk is celebrating this significant anniversary with a special feature on the great charter.

This 800-year-old medieval document is a foundation stone to the rule of law and has been described over the centuries as “influencing kings and statesmen, lawyers and lawmakers, prisoners, Chartists and Suffragettes” (British Library website).

In 1215 this piece of parchment applied the law to all, including the Monarch. It set out various rights and freedoms. And it was the first law that all English lawyers studied when it was first printed.

The name Magna Carta Libertatum give us its flavour of importance. “The Great Charter of the Liberties” promised among the 63 clauses to make peace, protect church rights, protect citizens from illegal imprisonment and provide access to swift justice. It is no wonder that the Magna Carta continues to have powerful iconic status in our society.

The legacy of Magna Carta continues to inspire lawyers around the world. It has even, according to many commentators, been an important influence in the development of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As well as a large number of specific issues the barons wanted addressed (such as: “No town or person shall be forced to build bridges over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so”) the Magna Carta incorporates a series of themes that are at the constitutional level. These include:

  • human rights and fundamental freedoms;
  • the rule of law;
  • the fundamental right of due process;
  • the need for justice to be swift; and
  • the right of access to justice.

Even in 1215, one of the things the barons achieved from imposing this agreement on King John was enhanced access to justice. Over the decades and centuries that followed, the citizens of England and Wales received benefits such as protection from illegal imprisonment, the establishment of permanent courts, lack of any opportunity to “buy” a judicial decision, and the rule of law as a foundational part of their society.

Perhaps today’s foremost constitutional challenge lies in addressing barriers to access to justice. One of the contributors to the LawTalk feature, Matthew Smith, began his section on this aspect of Magna Carta’s continuing contribution to our heritage in this way: “For Magna Carta to remain the New Zealand constitutional pillar I suggest it is, we need to confront and meaningfully to respond to our growing access to justice problems.” These are my sentiments also.

“I don’t pretend to have the answers,” Mr Smith writes. “But I do know that we need to have a meaningful conversation about how we are going to address these problems.”

And the former Speaker of the House, now a legal academic, Professor Margaret Wilson writes: “It is a useful reminder that justice is dependent on institutions and procedures that are fair and are accessible. Litigants in the Family Court today may question whether this fundamental objective of the Magna Carta has not been forgotten in the interests of financial savings.”

The time has come, I believe, to launch in a significant way into a meaningful conversation about how we are going to address access to justice problems. What better time to start than as we celebrate the 800th anniversary of King John fixing his seal to the Magna Carta.

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