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The Magna Carta: 800 years and counting

"So we salute you, Magna Carta - thanks and happy anniversary!"

It’s Magna Carta’s 800th birthday this year, so we’re taking some time to show our appreciation for everything it’s done for us and all the great things it represents. It is one of the most celebrated documents in history and has influenced legal and governmental policy and practice in western nations for centuries.

Associate Professor Dan Meagher from Deakin Law School explains Magna Carta’s history and why it continues to be so important today.

Absolute power overruled

Until Magna Carta or the ‘great charter’ came into being in 1215, the King of England had absolute power and his decisions could not be questioned or overturned. Due to a series of failed wars in Europe, the wealthy barons rebelled against King John when he sought to extract more monies from them to finance these disasters. Magna Carta, was, then, established as a peace treaty between them and the king. Associate Professor Meagher explains the barons’ treaty as this: ‘you can remain king, but you must respect these rules.’

The law applies to all

Essentially, Magna Carta states that no one is above the law, including rulers, although this has become much more significant in modern society than it was at the time.

Associate Professor Meagher says ‘back then it didn’t have much impact on the common people – it was a resolution between the king and barons – but many of the key terms were expressed in a way that included everyone. Therefore the rights it included eventually came to protect everyone.’

Continued impact

As soon as Magna Carta was proclaimed King John petitioned the Pope to have it annulled. In fact, Associate Professor Meagher explains, ‘80 days after King John signed it he ripped it up.’ Despite the fact that each new king tried to find ways around it, it managed to hold its ground and became law in 1297. ‘Before that the dictates of Magna Carta being enforced depended on the good grace of the king, of which there was very little.’

It paved the way for some significant documents

The Declaration of Universal Human Rights and various democratic constitutions, including our own, were all influenced by the principles of Magna Carta. It also played a big role in the development of the United States’ Bill of Rights. According to Associate Professor Meagher, ‘Americans love and revere Magna Carta, maybe even more than the English.’

Effective conflict resolution methods

One of Magna Carta’s articles states that ‘no free man shall be imprisoned except by lawful judgement of his peers.’ Interestingly, Associate Professor Meagher says, ‘there was no such thing as a jury trial at the time, but this phrase became the foundation for modern juries.’

It lives in Australia

Well, one copy of it anyway. In the 1950s a document was found at a school in Somerset, England, which the British Museum confirmed to be one of the four or five known copies of the 1297 version of Magna Carta. Through a clerical error this copy it was offered for sale and the Australian government bought it for £10,000 pounds. Today its estimated value is between AUD25 and 30 million. It is housed and can be viewed at Parliament House in Canberra.

Its values are critical

The core ideals of Magna Carta are justice, liberty and equality. These values are the fundamental principles on which common law countries, such as Australia, the UK and the US were founded. ‘These ideals are so sacred that any government that sought to significantly undermine those key rights would probably not be the government for very long; they are such fundamental and respected parts of our system,’ Associate Professor Meagher says.

So we salute you, Magna Carta – thanks and happy anniversary!

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