I feel a little like Lord Sumption who began his recent address to the Friends of the British Library by saying:
“It is impossible to say anything new about Magna Carta, unless you say something mad. In fact, even if you say something mad, the likelihood is that it will have been said before, probably quite recently.”1
So while it is unlikely I will say anything unique, I will at least do my best to keep it short.
Simply looking at the document itself, it is difficult to make a strong case for Magna Carta being the cornerstone of any nation’s constitution in the 21st century. Much of the original text of Magna Carta dealt with grievances specific to that time. For example, the King promised immediately to give up all Welsh hostages and no longer to compel individuals to build bridges at river banks. Almost all of the 63 clauses of the Charter have been repealed; nearly a third were deleted or amended only 10 years after it was first sealed.
After its original rise to fame, Magna Carta seemed to disappear from the pages of history until the early 1600s when Sir Edward Coke revived it (for various political reasons) with such outstanding success that, 800 years later, we are still commemorating its very existence.
It is easy to be cynical about how directly the Great Charter parents today’s constitutional law. I, however, believe it symbolises (or at least has come to symbolise) enduring values and principles that guide our society today and should continue to do so for generations to come.
Magna Carta has come to represent a number of fundamental principles including the protection of human rights (although the expression was not used until the Second World War), freedom of religion and the right to justice. In my opinion, the most vital legacy of Magna Carta is that it has become a powerful symbol of the Rule of Law. It may not have been the original source of the principle, as Lord Sumption points out in his address, but today it certainly embodies the idea that everyone, including the law makers, should be held accountable to the same law.
As Attorney-General, the Rule of Law underlies all my decisions. As Lord Acton put it, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” so a particularly important aspect of the role of Attorney-General is to ensure the Government understands this principle and its application to the Executive.
- Lord Sumption, Magna Carta then and now, Address to the Friends of the British Library, 9 March 2015.
Mr Finlayson was admitted in February 1981 and was a partner with the firms Brandon Brookfield and Bell Gully. He left private practice in 2002 to become a barrister sole and was elected a National Party list MP in 2005. He became Attorney-General on 19 November 2008 and is also Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations. Mr Finlayson became a Queen’s Counsel on 13 December 2013. He has lectured in civil procedure, conflict of laws and ethics at Victoria University, and was an inaugural member of the author team for the well-established publication McGechan on Procedure and founding editor of Procedure Reports of New Zealand.