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June 14, 2015

Magna Carta: 800 years of reining in power and why it still matters

ABC Sydney, 14th June 2015.
By Linda Mottram.
Click here to view the original article.

Faced with a punitive, confiscating, murdering king, who’s losing territory hand over fist, what is one to do?

Gather your fellow barons, call in the weakened, discredited monarch and get a man of the cloth to preside while you thrash out a peace treaty.

And so they did at Runnymede in the year 1215 in a bid to end the Civil War that had been tearing the place apart under King John, incidentally a man so awful that no king since has had that name.

It was a shaky start; the deal faltered; but others rallied to salvage and reinstate the document, the 1297 version of which is the critical one which came to be the foundation document for legal systems everywhere that derive their laws from England.

And 800 years on, democracies everywhere are marking the occasion and remembering the words at the core of Magna Carta that have served to make our societies what they remain today.

First time monarch agrees to be bound by document
“It was really the first document we associate with the rule of law where in fact you have a monarch in England giving up some of their powers and … putting forward a document which he then seals and agrees to be bound by what that document says,” Malcolm Stuart, vice-president of the Rule of Law Institute of Australia and a member of Magna Carta Australia Committee, said.

“That’s the first time that occurs.

“Prior to that, we’re talking about a king who believed he had divine right, if he woke up in the morning and said he was going to confiscate your property, your property was confiscated or if he said he was going to impose punitive taxes, that’s what occurred,” Mr Stuart told 702 ABC Sydney Mornings.

There is a copy of the 1297 version of Magna Carta at Parliament House in Canberra.

A 1330 edition, that appears to have been a working lawyer’s document, is held at the State Library of New South Wales.

Principles of law under threat in Australia: Institute
But while Magna Carta is echoed in our current political system as well as in documents like the Constitution of the United States, threats to the principles remain.

The Rule of Law Institute said those threats included excessive exercising of powers by the Independent Commission Against Corruption in NSW in the recent treatment of senior crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen.

The Rule of Law Institute also took issue with the recent suggestion in Australia that a minister might exercise virtually arbitrary power in deciding whether to cancel the citizenship of a dual passport holder deemed to be a terrorist.

“The principle of the rule of law would point to saying no [but instead] have the decision made by an independent judiciary, have a full hearing of it … because that will give confidence in the decision as opposed to the minister making the decision which may simply be reviewed by a judge,” Mr Stuart said.

According to the institute, the principles under threat also include the ideas of the absolute supremacy of the law, the requirement that citizens understand what the law is, that all are equal before the law and that the judiciary is independent and accessible.

Advancing the interests of the rule of law, the institute sends teachers to talk to legal studies students in years 11 and 12 in schools around the country.

And on this significant occasion of Magna Carta’s 800th birthday, perhaps it is best not to dwell on another part of the document that declares a woman cannot give evidence against a man for murder unless the man is her husband.



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