Thursday, 17 September 2015

What remains of the Magna Carta?

Pic of Magna Carta Exhibition Poster at entrance in British Library

The Magna Carta is a landmark in British history and human rights law. June 2015 marked the 800th anniversary. The British Library ran an exhibition from 13th March until 1st September to celebrate the occasion. The exhibition was entitled:
Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

This medieval document has been cited in legal arguments both in Britain and abroad throughout the centuries. According to Lord Denning, it came to be seen as a guarantee of

"the freedom of the individual against
the arbitrary authority of the despot." 

The word "freedom" does not even appear in the text. Lord Bingham stated that

"the significance of the Magna Carta lay not only in what it actually said,
but in what later generations claimed and believed it had said."

I visited the busy exhibition on two occasions. On the first visit, I watched the videos and studied the various exhibits in the cases. On my second visit, I took more time and followed the detailed audio guide.

Pic of cases in which medieval documents displayed in optimum conditions and dark
Medieval documents preserved under glass and in dark

Just three of the Magna Carta's original clauses survive in the law of England and Wales today. The best-known section was prominently displayed at the exhibition's entrance.

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, 
or stripped of his rights or possessions, 
or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, 
nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, 
except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land."

The above seem basic human rights to us today. And yet, there are still countries in the world where these human rights are abused 800 years later. I can't help wondering about the application of the last part even in Britain today:

"To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice."

The following issues come to mind: court and tribunal delays (particularly for the disabled), access to interpreters, legal aid reductions for the poor while the wealthy can pay clever lawyers to stay out of court and keep their names out of the Media, money-making and arbitrary parking fines where no offence has been committed, etc.

No one above the law
Significantly, the Magna Carta placed the king under some legal restraint. King John was a notorious tyrant. The Magna Carta established that no one is above the law. Today that means that the monarch, the Royal Family, the Prime Minister, MPs, hereditary or life peers, security services, local government officials, the wealthy, celebrities, judges, barristers or lawyers are not above the law. Attempts are currently being made to correct past injustices, particularly those relating to child abuse. Sometimes the innocent have been caught up in the new wave of transparency.

Remaining clauses
The 2015 issue of the Magna Carta contained 63 clauses. The 1297 version under Edward 1 had just 37 clauses. I particularly liked the visual way the exhibition showed the deletions over time. Clause 1 still remains today. It relates to the liberties of the English Church. Clause 9 confirms the liberties and customs of the city of London, and other towns and cities.

Pic of visual display on clause deletions
Visual explaining deletions in the document clauses

The exhibition drew out well what the Magna Carta signified in following centuries. The charters appeared at the very end. One copy had been badly damaged by a fire. Advances in technology now mean that we can see the text more clearly again. Maybe this is also symbolic of how intrusive as well as beneficial technology can be in our lives? More can be seen of our lives than ever before. Does that restrict our freedom? Or enhance it?

Cornelia Parker's Magna Carta Embroidery

Wikipedia Embroidery
The British Library also commissioned an embroidery to commemorate the Magna Carta anniversary. It echoes the Bayeux Tapestry with embroidered contributions from over 200 people. In a contemporary twist by Cornelia Parker, the artwork captures the Magna Carta's Wikipedia article as it appeared online one year earlier.

Pic of embroidered text section

An opportunity for the general public to interact at the end would have been great. Posting human rights suggestions could have brought the exhibition right up-to-date.

Although little remains of the Magna Carta's text in law today, it provided the foundation for many other such documents. Its influence and spirit endures.

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