Why the Magna Carta still matters

All the talk about the Magna Carta, on its 800th anniversary, reminds us of the scene in The Castle where the lawyer sums up his case by saying that ‘It’s justice, it’s law, it’s the vibe’. You can still feel the vibe of the Magna Carta in Australia today.

It might seem strange that a handwritten agreement in Latin between King John and his English nobles in 1215 could still matter to us now. Especially since there’s a lot of talk about what the standard measure beer was and how to regulate fish-weirs in the River Thames.

But this agreement also led to some of the key principles of our legal system. That governments must obey the law, that courts must be independent and that you have rights if you are put on trial.

The Magna Carta restricted the power of the king and declared that no-one, not even a monarch or the leader of a government, was above the law. If they broke the law they could be punished. Think President Nixon and Watergate – at least before he was pardoned … All of this reinforced the principle of the ‘rule of law’.

The Magna Carta also declared that ‘To no-one will we sell, to no-one deny or delay right or justice’. This means that justice can’t be bought, that everyone has access to it and that we should be brought before a court quickly if accused of a crime. It also said that courts are not at the beck and call of governments or anyone else. They are independent.

Whenever we hear about unfair trials we should also take another look at this old agreement made on sheepskin. The Magna Carta scratched out the beginnings of many rights we sometimes take for granted. To not have our property or liberty taken from us unless we’ve broken the law – and only if this has been proved after a fair trial. These rights have been incorporated into the American Bill of Rights.

While the Magna Carta is very old and not homegrown, it’s aged very nicely thank you very much and has a comfy place in the Australian legal system. So Happy Birthday Magna Carta – and many happy returns.

You can check out the Magna Carta yourself online. There are events running across Australia to celebrate the 800th anniversary. And to find out how the English are celebrating, head to the British Library website.

This page was last updated on October 26, 2015