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Supreme Court to celebrate Magna Carta anniversary

03 June 2015

More than 100 people attended a LiberTea at the Law Library of Victoria on 15 June 2015 to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta, the document that set the foundations for the liberties we enjoy today.

The Magna Carta, which means ‘Great Charter’ in Latin, was issued at Runnymede by King John of England as a practical solution to the political crisis he faced from rebellious Barons.

The 4,000-word peace treaty, written on calfskin parchment, was the earliest attempt to limit royal authority and established for the first time the principle that everyone — including the king — was subject to the law.

One if its most important clauses, the 39th clause, gave all ‘free men’ the right to justice and a fair trial.

The Magna Carta also bequeathed to the world tenets such as due process, trial by jury and justice delayed is justice denied.

It formed the basis of political constitutions and civil rights declarations throughout the world, including the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

The 800th anniversary provided an opportunity to reflect on the Magna Carta’s impact and whether it continued to matter.

After outlining the history of the document, including outlining subsequent versions, Professor Sarah Joseph, Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law (Monash University), described the Magna Carta as a ` mythical icon.’

‘Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the key drafters of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, referred to it (the UDHR) as “an international Magna Carta,” even though it contains many, many more rights than were ever envisioned in Magna Carta,’ she said.

‘But, unlike in the United States, it hasn’t survived so well in the United Kingdom (UK), where Parliament remains sovereign, and only three clauses of Magna Carta remain on the statute books.

‘In a court case in 2000, the UK Government argued that Magna Carta was not a proper statute, not a real law.

‘It was argued as some sort of foundation for the Occupy London protests in St Pauls in London in 2011. Those arguments were dismissed scathingly by the UK courts, and they noted that of the three clauses remaining, two concerned the rights of the Church and the City of London.

‘Magna Carta is not any sort of check on the power of Parliament and nor is it in this country,’ she said.

‘While we have a written entrenched Constitution, Parliament remains supreme and largely sovereign in the arena of human rights.

‘And, to be frank, human rights are under assault. I must say that from the perspective of 2015, the legacy of Magna Carta, whether real or mythical, seems to be in poor shape.’

Acting Chief Justice Chris Maxwell also spoke at the LiberTea and said he was astonished by the amount of attention the anniversary had received.

‘Where — we should ask ourselves — was the celebration in 2001 of the centenary of the Australian Constitution, which established the separation of powers, itself a bulwark of the rule of law, and the right to trial by jury?

‘Who marked the 60th anniversary in 2009 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly at a time when its Chairperson was an Australian Minister, Dr H. V. Evatt?

‘This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act, the first of a series of a Commonwealth Acts which — so far from eroding rights — gave concrete expression to the right not to be treated in a discriminatory fashion.

‘That Act was followed by the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Age Discrimination Act 2004. Will there be a street party next year to mark the 10th birthday of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights?’

He said he hoped so.

More information about the Magna Carta (External link)

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