800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta

Julian Walker
Legal and Social Affairs Division

In June 2015, the Magna Carta will mark its 800th anniversary.

This anniversary presents an opportunity for Canadians to reflect on how our fundamental legal principles have emerged, how they have endured, and how they continue to be put to the test in our modern society.

The Magna Carta is as much a symbol of justice as it is an important historical document. Throughout the world, it has inspired and influenced the drafting of legal rights provisions in many successor treaties and constitutional documents, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It is perhaps most famous for articulating a cornerstone principle of English law:

No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land.

The Supreme Court of Canada, in United States of America v. Ferras; United States of America v. Latty, has described this passage as the “ancient and venerable principle that no person shall lose his or her liberty without due process according to the law.”

The passage came to be associated with habeas corpus. This is the principle that any person under arrest must be brought before a judge or court to determine the legality of his or her detention. It enshrined in written law the idea that no person, not even the king, was above the law.

Peace agreement with rebellious nobles

On 15 June 1215, King John, at Runnymede, England, placed his official seal on what would become known by the Latin term for “Great Charter.”

The Magna Carta was intended to secure peace between the King and a group of rebellious barons. They were angry that the King had imposed yet another tax on them to fund his failing military campaigns in France. They were also fed up with his authoritarian rule and his capricious and vindictive sense of justice.

Drafted by the barons, the Magna Carta set out various “liberties, rights, and concessions” that were to be “granted” by the King. It provided rules for a medieval society that were designed to limit the King’s self-interested interference in such matters as marriage, inheritance, custody, rent payments, use of forests, freedom of movement of merchants and access to the justice system.

Pragmatic historians are often quick to note that its terms were largely written to protect the privileges of the barons. However, the Magna Carta was unique in its time for recognizing in written law not only ideas such as the basic legal rights of every “freeman.” It also recognized the “ancient liberties and free customs” of the City of London and the freedom of the English Church to elect bishops without the King’s interference.

The legacy of the Magna Carta          

The Magna Carta failed to bring about the peace the barons had hoped to secure. It was quickly nullified with the help of Pope Innocent III, who saw that it also represented a threat to papal authority in England.

However, its ideals had taken hold. After King John died, the Magna Carta was reissued by subsequent monarchs with various revisions. For instance, “no free man” was eventually changed to “no one,” thereby extending the rights to serfs.

The idea that a legal document could set out the basic rights of citizens and limit the powers of a ruler was taken up again in England with the Bill of Rights in 1689. The Magna Carta was an influence on the drafting of the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and Constitution (1787). For example, the fifth and 14th amendments to the American Constitution provide that no person shall be deprived of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Similarly, France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) states: “No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law.”

Also, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.”

The legacy of the Magna Carta is also reflected in the “Legal Rights” section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 7 guarantees the “right to life, liberty and security of the person.” It adds that a person shall only be deprived of this right in accordance with “the principles of fundamental justice.”

Section 9 states that “everyone has the right not to be arbitrarily detained or imprisoned”; section 10 states that everyone arrested or detained has the right “to have the validity of the detention determined by way of habeas corpus and to be released if the detention is not lawful.” Section 11(f) also guarantees the right to a trial by jury, although this only applies where the maximum punishment is five years or more.

Canadians can participate directly in the anniversary. An original copy of the Magna Carta is scheduled to go on exhibit in Ottawa starting 11 June 2015. It will proceed to Winnipeg, Toronto and Edmonton through to 29 December 2015. Celebrations are also planned in England and the United States.

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