November 24, 2015
Magna Carta and Comparative Bills of Rights in Europe
Magna Carta and Comparative Bills of Rights in Europe, Maya Hertig Randall, Professor of Constitutional Law at Geneva University, LL.M. (Cambridge)
It is an honour to be part of this celebration, commemorating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, an iconic document which has become a symbol of liberty and the rule of law on both sided of the Atlantic. Within Europe, the text of the Magna Carta has come to express a common constitutional heritage. Textbooks and treaties on civil rights and liberties throughout Europe invariably refer to the Magna Carta as a foundational document of fundamental right, showing that the Charter’s reach goes well beyond its country of origin.
The aim of this short contribution is not to trace the actual – direct or indirect – influence of the Magna Carta on the constitutions and their Bill of Rights of the various Member States of the Council of Europe. Such endeavour would be a daunting task indeed. Ideas travel across space and time; they evolve, are reinterpreted and transformed in this process. We would first need to establish the original meaning of the Charter, i.e. what it meant in the specific context of its time. We would then need to retrace the long trajectory of the ideas expressed in the Charter, their journey over the Atlantic, and the Charter’s impact on the founding fathers of the United States Constitution. We would thereafter need to explore the Magna Carta’s reception in various parts of the European continent, partly via the influence of the US constitution. This would be a task for which a constitutional lawyer may not be well equipped.
The contemporary relevance of the Magna Carta is not only dependent on its direct or indirect imprint on modern constitutions. The Magna Carta hugely matters because of its symbolic value, and because its ideas still resonates with us today. I will adopt a contemporary reading of the Magna Carta, highlighting its resonance and the principles it has come to embody. This approach treats the Magna Carta like a living tree, and not as a document the meaning of which is fixed in time. Put differently, it rejects an originalist reading, privileging a dynamic interpretation. This is an approach many domestic Courts – and most prominently the European Court of Human Rights – adopt when they are called upon to construe the meaning of fundamental rights provisions.
The clause of the Magna Carta which without doubt has had the strongest resonance is almost too well known to be cited:
“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 other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”
The famous clause 39 has become the embodiment of two powerful and connected principles: Firstly, personal freedom, consisting mainly of, but not limited to, the right to liberty and security, and secondly, the rule of law and due process of law. Together, these principles form a bulwark against arbitrary rule. The limits of personal freedom can only be determined by law and not by the capricious will of the sovereign.
The idea of freedom under the law has been reasserted in the following Centuries, prominently in the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, which is nowadays part of the French Constitution and upheld by the French Constitutional Council. Art. 7 protects specifically the right of liberty and security, holding that “[n]o person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law.” Other provisions, mainly Art. 4 and 5, protect personal freedom more generally, stating that the limits to liberty can only be determined by law, and that “nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.”
Freedom under the law forms part of the common constitutional tradition reflected in Bills of Rights, in Europe and beyond. In addition to specific provisions on the right to liberty and security, constitutions require, either in specific or in general limitation clauses, that restrictions of fundamental rights need to be prescribed by law. We find this requirement also in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which can be viewed as codifiying common constitutional traditions of the EU Member States. According to Art. 52 para. 1 of the EU Charter, “[a]ny limitation on the exercise of the rights and freedoms recognised by this Charter must be provided for by law.”
Beyond the protection of individual rights, the Magna Carta contains the seed of the more general principle of the rule of law, or its German or French counterpart, the ‘Rechtsstaat’ or the ‘Etat de droit’. This more general principle can be derived from the precept reflected in clause 39 of the of the Magna Carta that the King is not above the law but bound by law.
European constitutions underscore that the rule of law is a central element of a legitimate constitutional order. Virtually all European constitutions explicitly refer to rule of law principles. A prominent example is the German Basic Law, adopted in 1949, in the aftermath of Word War. But also more recent constitutions, in particularly those adopted against the backdrop of totalitarian or authoritarian past, invariably commit to the Rule of Law. To name just one example : The Constitution of Serbia holds in Art. 1 that the Republic of Serbia is a state “based on the Rule of Law”, and Art. 3 holds that “the rule of law is a fundamental prerequisite for the Constitution which is based on inalienable human rights.”
Apart from the Rule of Law, the Magna Carta is also an evocative document for us today, because it has come to embody the very idea of a modern Constitution: it represents, in Sandra Day O’Connor’s words, the “written embodiment of fundamental laws », « the more general notion of a written statement of fundamental law binding upon the sovereign state.”
The fundamental nature of the principles enshrined in the Magna Carta, and their written form, have earned the Magna Carta the attribute of the “world’s first written constitution”. This understanding of the Magna Carta resonates in the famous judgment Marbury v. Madison, describing the constitution as “superior, paramount law, unchangeable by ordinary means”, and implying that laws clashing with the constitution are null and void. As is well-known, Marbury v. Madison founded the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review. In Europe, constitutional review is a much more recent phenomenon. The thinking of Marbury v. Madison has been steadily gaining ground since World War II and has become the dominant paradigm of upholding the rights enshrined in domestic constitutions.
Interestingly, the authors of the Magna Carta also provided for supervisory arrangements aimed at controlling the King. Based on clause 61, a supervisory body representing the Barons had the power to oversee compliance with the Magna Carta and to take in extremis retalitatory measures against the faulty King. Although this mechanism was ineffective, it can be viewed – based on a contemporary reading of the Charter – as expressing the idea of separation of powers : ambition must be made to counteract ambition. Maybe it can even be viewed as an embryonic precursor of judicial review.
The Magna Carta has not only come to embody the concept of a written constitution, of which Bills of Rights are today an essential part. Its provisions also encapsulate ideas which have grown over time into fundamental rights enshrined both in Europe’s contemporary Bill of Rights.
To illustrate this point, let me refer again to the famous clause 39. Apart from the right to personal freedom, clause 39 – together with clause 40 – expresses the idea of procedural due process, fair trial and access to justice. Individual liberty can according to clause 39 only be curtailed through lawful judgments; moreover, precepts of a fair trial and access to justice have to be respected: In the wording of clause 40: “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.” The idea that justice must be accessible also underpins clause 17, holding that “[c]ommon pleas shall not follow our court but shall be held in some fixed place”.
Clause 45 is complementary to fair trial guarantees and related to judicial independence. It lays down a requirement which has become common place and is mentioned in the Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary, adopted in 1985 within the framework of the UN – the requirement that judges have appropriate training or qualifications in law. Clause 45 reads: “We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or other officials, only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well.”
Clauses 39 and 40, and the related clauses of the Magna Carta can be viewed as the ancestors of procedural safeguards against arbitrary detention, and the right to a fair trial, enshrined in Art. 5 and 6 ECHR. Corresponding provisions in domestic constitutions have become commonplace on the European continent, mainly through the direct impact of the European Convention.
Another contemporary right which can trace its lineage to Magna Carta is the right to just and proportionate punishment. In the Magna Carta, we find it expressed in clause 20 and 21. The relevant part of clause 20 reads as follows: “for a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood.”
A contemporary expression of the right to just and proportionate punishment can be found in Art. 49 para. 3 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, holding that the The EU Charter holds that “[t]he severity of penalties must not be disproportionate to the criminal offence”.
The Constitution of Cyprus contains a similar provision. In addition to these explicit guarantees, the right not to be subject to disproportionate punishment is implied in the prohibition of inhuman and degrading penalties. The Vinter judgment of the European Court of Human Rights ruling out incompressible life sentences is a recent link in this chain of development.
Another clause of the Magna Carta which still resonates with us today is clause Clause 42: “In future it shall be lawful for any man to leave and return to our kingdom unharmed and without fear (…)”.
Clause 43 also refers to free movement, reflecting economic rationales: “All merchants may enter or leave England unharmed and without fear, and may stay or travel within it, by land or water, for purposes of trade, free from all illegal exactions, in accordance with ancient and lawful customs.” Clause 43 evokes to contemporary readers economic liberties, enshrined in many European constitutions under different names (‘occupational freedom’ in Germany, ‘economic freedom’ in Switzerland, ‘liberté d’entreprendre’ » in France). For the EU-Member States, it evokes the four fundamental market freedoms.
Moreover, the Magna Carta contains clauses which regulate the taking of horses, carts, wood, issues of inheritance and guardianship, or the remarriage of widows. These clauses respond to concrete grievances against the King. Abstracted from their specific context, they aim at safeguarding interests protected nowadays by the fundamental rights to property, and the prohibition of forced marriage.
Contemporary Bills of Rights are worded in a more abstract and principled way than the Magna Carta, expressing atemporal and universal principles. Nevertheless, like the many detailed provisions of the Magna Carta, fundamental rights have emerged from history, from grievances against the concrete experience of injustice.
This is clearly expressed in the UDHR, referred to by Eleanor Roosevelt as “the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.” According to its preamble, the UDHR has been declared, as a reaction to “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”.
Put differently, fundamental rights and freedoms are “Rights from Wrongs” (Alan Dershowitz). They are concrete answers to centuries’ old experience of injustice and human suffering which have shaped our understanding and the meaning of human dignity. The insight that human rights are deeply rooted in our history makes them fixed stars to navigate by at difficult times. The star of the Magna Carta has been shining, for instance, in the context of the “war against terror”: It has been invoked as a ‘fixed star’, reminding us to remain eternally vigilant when human rights come under pressure and are set aside for security concerns. In the United States, the Magna Carta was referred to in the major cases involving the indefinite detention of enemy combatants, Padilla v. Rumsfeld, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, and Boumediene v. Bush. In the Boumediene decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, referred to Article 39 of the Magna Carta. He held:
“Magna Carta decreed that no man would be imprisoned contrary to the law of the land…Important as the principle was, the Barons at Runnymede prescribed no specific legal process to enforce it…gradually the writ of habeas corpus became the means by which the promise of Magna Carta was fulfilled.”
Kennedy’s understanding of Magna Carta is to view it as a document whose principles have grown over time. He traces the United States Constitution, and habeas corpus, back to the Magna Carta, establishing a link between the ancient guarantee of Art. 39 with 21 Century guarantees through historical progression.
In a similar vein, In the United Kingdom, Lord Bingham’s opinion referred to the Magna Carta in the famous judgment A. and others v. The Secretary of Home Department, handed down on 16 December 2004. This judgment concerned indefinite detention of foreign nationals suspected of terrorism under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act of 2001.
Lord Bingham held:
“In urging the fundamental importance of the right to personal freedom (…), the appellants were able to draw on the long libertarian tradition of English law, dating back to chapter 39 of Magna Carta 1215, given effect in the ancient remedy of habeas corpus, declared in the Petition of Right 1628, upheld in a series of landmark decisions down the centuries and embodied in the substance and procedure of the law to our own day. In its treatment of article 5 of the European Convention, the European Court also has recognised the prime importance of personal freedom.”
In referring to Magna Carta and linking it to the subsequent developments in the 17th Century and contemporary law, Lord Bingham emphasises continuity. The long liberal tradition and the constitutional values traced back to Magna Carta embody stability at times of crisis; they offer reassurance at times of turmoil. They provide the normative, lasting framework which cannot be set aside by current majorities.
The legacy of Magna Carta is not confined to the United Kingdom. Lord Bingham implies this by referring to Art. 5 of the European Convention, which – like the Magna Carta – recognizes the prime importance of personal freedom. Through the of liberty and security, and the right to a fair trial, enshrined in the European Convention, the spirit of Magna Carta has been spread in the 47 Member States of the Council of Europe.
In my home country, Switzerland, we celebrated last year the 40th Anniversary of Switzerland’s membership of the Convention. Looking back four decades, legal scholars concluded that Art. 5 and 6 of the Convention are the provisions which have left the most profound imprint on the Swiss legal and constitutional order. It was thanks to the ECHR, for instance, that Switzerland revised its legal framework to put an end to the practise of so-called administrative detention: Between the 1930s and the 1980s, thousands of people were detained on vague grounds and without access to a court.
Administrative authorities locked up people for years without a trial, on the grounds including being “work-shy” or “immoral”. The Swiss Government apologised to the victims of administrative detention in 2010 and acknowledged the injustice suffered. The process of rehabilitation and dealing with this dark chapter of our history is still ongoing.
Unfortunately, these debates do not occur in a context celebrating the spirit of Magna Carta as part of our common constitutional heritage. They occur in a context where it has become commonplace to invoke another foundational document, the Swiss Federal Charter of 1291, which is considered the first building block of what was to become the Swiss Federal State. Designed to free Switzerland from Habsburg rule, the Swiss Federal Charter of 1291 expresses opposition to “foreign judges”, e.g. judges imposed by the Habsburg rulers. Fears of foreign rule are mobilised today to reject the European Convention – inaptly labelled as foreign law – and the judges of the European Court of Human Rights – decried as “foreign judges”.
This example shows that symbols and myths matter. Human rights and constitutionalism need powerful symbols like the Magna as an expression of a long lasting and transnational tradition.The importance of anchoring human rights in history and tracing them back to a foundational document has also been recognised outside Europe. On the African continent, a document dating back to the same period as the Magna Carta receives increasing attention. The so-called Manden-Charter was declared by the founder of the Mandingo Empire and the assembly of his wise men in a region located today in Mali. The content of the Charter has been orally handed down from generation to generation. It has been annually celebrated at commemorative ceremonies to keep its content alive. In 2009, it was inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In the same year, the Magna Carta was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.
Like the Magna Carta, the Manden Charter can be read as expressing fundamental values underlying human rights and constitutionalism. In simple language, the Manden Charter underscores freedom and equality, with a universalist aspiration. Based on a contemporary reading, we can find the seeds of essential human rights, including the right to life, the prohibition of slavery, the right to food, the right to bodily integrity and freedom of expression. The Manden Charter reads:
1.The hunters declare:
Every human life is a life.
It is true that a life comes into existence before another life
But no life is more ‘ancient’, more respectable than any other
In the same way no one life is superior to any other
2. The hunters declare:
As each life is a life,
Any wrong done unto a life requires reparation.
No one should gratuitously attack his neighbour
No one should wrong his neighbour
No one should torment his fellow man
5. The hunters declare:
Hunger is not a good thing
There is nothing worse than this on this earth
As long as we hold the quiver and the bow
Hunger will no longer kill anyone in the Manden
If by chance hunger were to arrive,
War will no longer destroy any village for the acquiring of slaves
That is to say that no one will from now on place the bit in the mouth of his fellow man
In order to sell him.
Furthermore no one will be beaten
And all the more so put to death because he is the son of a slave
6. The hunters declare
The essence of slavery is today extinguished
‘from one wall to the other’ from one border to the other of the Manden
Raids are banned from this day onwards in the Manden
The torments born of these horrors have ended from this day onwards in the Manden
What an ordeal this torment is!
Especially when the oppressed has no recourse
The slave does not benefit from any consideration
Anywhere in the world.
7. People from the old days tell us:
‘Man as an individual
Made of flesh and bone
Of marrow and nerves
Of skin covered in hair
Eats food and drink
But his ‘soul’, his spirit lives on three things:
He must see what he wishes to see
He must say what he wishes to say
And do what he wishes to do
If one of these things were to miss from the human soul
It would suffer and would surely become sick
In consequence the hunters declare:
Each person from now on is free to dispose of his own person
Each person is free to act in the way he wishes
Each person disposes of the fruit of his labour from now on
This is the oath of the Manden
For the ears of the whole world.
It is up to us to ensure that the Manden Charter and the Magna Carta will continue to resonate on their respective continents and beyond – for the ears of the whole world.
November 5, 2015
Attorney General Lynch Delivers Remarks at Magna Carta Commemoration Ceremony
15 June 2015 – Magna Carta Day.
United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch at the American Bar Association Memorial, Runnymede.
Click here to read this speech as it appears on the Justice Department’s website.
“Thank you, Secretary [Philip] Hammond, for that kind introduction. Your Excellencies, distinguished colleagues, honored guests – it is a pleasure to be here this morning, and a great privilege to join you all at this important commemoration.
Eight hundred years ago, on the grounds of Runnymede, King John sealed a piece of parchment – a Great Charter – that extended basic rights to individuals subject to his reign. That Magna Carta was neither expansive nor long-lived – its rules applied to only a small group of noblemen, and it was first annulled just 10 weeks after being sealed. But its adoption served as a signpost on a long and difficult march, and those who forged its compromise stood as early travelers on the road to justice. While the hands that wrote the Magna Carta have long been stilled, the principles they carved out of the struggles of their day – of the struggles of the human condition – live on.
Seven and a half centuries after that historic day, in 1957, a crowd of 5,000 people walked in storied footsteps to dedicate this memorial and to recognize its significance. Among them was Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of America’s Supreme Court and one of our nation’s greatest jurists, who noted in an opinion a year later that principles traced back to Magna Carta represented a concept that is “nothing less than the dignity of man.”
For Chief Justice Warren, and for the many American lawyers and jurists who gathered by his side, this monument had special meaning, because Magna Carta had come to symbolize more than a simple agreement between noblemen and their king. This social contract between a monarch and his people codified, however imperfectly, notions that would one day stand at the heart of our own system of justice: the idea that no power is unconditional, and no rule is absolute; that we are not subjugated by an infallible authority, but share authority with our fellow citizens. That all are protected by the law, just as all must answer to the law. These fundamental, age-old principles have given hope to those who face oppression. They have given a voice to those yearning for the redress of wrongs. And they have served as the bedrock of free societies around the globe, inspiring countless women and men seeking to weave their promise into reality.
For those who drafted the U.S. Constitution, the significance of Magna Carta was clear. Its influence helped shape a political system that enshrines separation of powers, due process and the rule of law; a legal system that recognizes and honors the dignity of all people; and a commitment to ongoing efforts to realize these ideals in every interaction between our citizens and our institutions.
Even today, America continues to pursue these goals. We are engaged in initiatives to promote trust and understanding between law enforcement officers and the communities we serve. We are working with partners in the United States and around the world to pursue those who would deny human dignity, whether through trafficking or corruption, violence or terrorism. And we are carrying out a historic reorientation of our criminal justice practices to end an overreliance on incarceration. At every turn, we are driven by that same devotion to the rule of law whose seeds took root in this field so long ago.
Of course, our journey has not been easy, and it is far from over. Just as men and women of great conscience and strong will have, over eight centuries, worked to advance the cause that animated their forebears – in nations around the world – we too must advance and extend the promise that lies at the heart of our global community. We too must deliver on the spirit of Magna Carta. And we too must carry forward our work to new fields of equality, opportunity and justice.
On the day that this monument was dedicated in 1957, one of the former presidents of the American Bar Association called his journey to Runnymede a “devout pilgrimage to the ancestral home, to the well springs of our profession, to the fountainhead of our faith.” Today, we not only pay tribute to the source of our legal doctrine – we reaffirm our devotion to its values and recommit ourselves to the service of its most treasured ideals. As we go forward, I am proud, I am honored and I am humbled to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all of you in our shared pursuit of a more just world.
Thank you all, once again, for the opportunity to take part in this commemoration. Thank you for your dedication to the ennobling ideals we are here to celebrate. I look forward to all that our nations will achieve together in the spirit of their promise in the years ahead.”
October 26, 2015
Magna Carta: Did she die in vain?
Magna Carta: Did she die in vain?
Baroness Hale, Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Gray’s Inn, 19 October 2015.
Click here to read the article as it originally appeared on the UK Supreme Court website.
Click here to download this speech as a PDF.
My title comes from a famous clip from ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, first broadcast on 16 October 1959, where Tony Hancock mimics the role of Henry Fonda in ‘Twelve Angry Men’, trying to persuade a jury to his point of view. ‘Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?’,cartier santos 100 replica he asks. ‘Did she die in vain?’ But he seems to have had just as many misconceptions about Magna Carta as the authors of 1066 and All That, and probably most of the rest of us, at least until we began to research it for the purpose of this 800th anniversary. For he went on: ‘that brave Hungarian peasant girl who forced King John to sign the pledge at Runnymede and close the boozers at half past ten’. If that were indeed what the King had agreed to, she would certainly have died in vain, now that the boozers can stay open much later but many are closing because alcohol is so cheaply available in retail outlets that people do not feel the need to go out to drink.
This lecture series has certainly helped us to understand more about what Magna Carta really meant. Lord Judge opened the series with a rattling good yarn about how it came about, how it was annulled, how it was reissued by King John’s successor, and several times later, how it survived and was revived in later centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. Lord Neuberger compared it to the near- contemporary idea of the Holy Grail, because it later achieved similar mythical status. Sir John Baker will be exploring the Templar connection between 1215 and 1628. What I want to do is to explore its contemporary relevance. Judicial decorum dictates that I should do so without entering into party political controversy. But perhaps I can approach that delicate task through three other anniversaries which are celebrated this year.
Although some historians tend to be dismissive of the importance of Magna Carta, we lawyers can trace at least three great ideas back to the original, the Magna Carta of 1215. The first and greatest idea stems from chapters 39 and 40 of the original Charter, combined as chapter 29 in the 1216 and all later versions. It seems appropriate to quote from the 1297 Charter,4 in the wording which still appears on the statute book today:
‘No free man shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his freehold or liberties or free customs, or be outlawed or exiled or in any other wise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man right or justice.’
As Lord Bingham has said, those words still ‘have the power to make the blood race’. They embody the individual’s right to life, liberty and property, not to be arbitrarily infringed by the rulers, but only in accordance with the law.
The second great idea came from chapter 12:
‘No scutage or aid is to be imposed in Our Kingdom except by the Common Counsel of Our Kingdom unless for the ransoming of Our person and knighting of Our first-born son and for marrying once Our first-born daughter and for these only a reasonable aid is to be taken.’
This was followed up by chapter 14, another of my favourites:
‘And in order to have the Common Counsel of the kingdom for the levying of an aid . . . or for the levying of scutage We are to cause the Archbishops Bishops Abbots Earls and Greater Barons to be summoned individually by Our letters and moreover We are to have a general summons made through Our Sheriffs and Bailiffs of all who hold in chief of Us for a fixed day at least forty days thence and at a fixed place . . .’
My own blood raced shortly after the last Parliament was dissolved, when I received just such a summons, giving me exactly 40 days’ notice of ‘a certain Parliament to be holden at Our City of Westminster’.
Sadly, chapters 12 and 14 did not survive into the 1216 and later reissues. They were not denied, but being deemed ‘important but doubtful’, they were ‘deferred until we have fuller counsel, when we will, most fully in these as well as other matters that have to be amended, do what is for the common good and peace and estate of ourselves and our kingdom’. They never reappeared.
The third great idea, which permeates the whole Charter, is that the King and his officials are as much subject to the laws of the land as are his subjects. The rule of law is not one-way traffic: not only do the governed have to obey the law, but so do the governors. This was reinforced by my own favourite chapter in the 1215 Charter, chapter 42, also sadly omitted from the later reissues:
‘We will not appoint Justices Constables Sheriffs or Bailiffs except from such as know the law of the Kingdom and are willing to keep it well.’
The closing words of what is now chapter 29 also embody the individual’s right to access to justice, before an incorruptible decision-maker who will judge according to law and not by the size of the bribe, which is the first requirement of any ‘impartial tribunal’.
Further, by chapter 60 of the original Charter:
‘Moreover all the aforesaid customs and liberties which We have granted to be maintained in Our kingdom as far as We are concerned with regard to Our own men all the men of Our Kingdom both Clergy and Laity are also to observe so far as they are concerned with them with regard to their own men.’
The promises made by the king to the barons were to be cascaded down through the feudal ranks. These are the three great pillars of modern constitutionalism – the liberties of the individual, the consent of the people to taxation and other burdens, and the rule of law – but they all beg the question: what is the law and who makes it? The answer was certainly not clear in 1215 and took many centuries to establish. But where stand those three great ideas today?
As to the first, I do not propose to discuss where we are with the substance of each of the rights renumerated in what became chapter 29, rather to ask where we are with the idea of such rights. And where better to look than another important anniversary which we celebrate this year, the 250th anniversary of the great case of Entick v Carrington? Contrary to popular belief, this was not a case about general warrants, but it established some important principles which are with us to this day. And as are we today, it was concerned with the delicate balance between the needs of effective government and the freedom of individuals to oppose such government. Oliver Cromwell had little doubt about which should prevail, allegedly saying that “your magna farta cannot control actions taken for the safety of the Commonwealth”. He was not alone. The power of the Secretaries of State, the King’s principal ministers, to issue warrants without any judicial authority to apprehend, detain and question people suspected of treason or even seditious libel was recognised in the case law of the King’s Bench.
The chain of events which culminated in Entick v Carrington began with a series of cases prompted by issue No 45 of The North Briton, a weekly news sheet which was highly critical of the King and his government. The anonymous author, John Wilkes MP, countered the plea in the King’s speech to Parliament for ‘that spirit of concord, and that obedience to the laws, which is essential to good order’, with the retort that the ‘spirit of concord’ was not to be expected of people who were being made subject to arbitrary searches and seizures, rather the ‘spirit of liberty’ should rise up in proportion to the grievance they felt – ‘freedom is the English subject’s Prerogative’.
Lord Halifax, Secretary of State, issued a general warrant, authorising the King’s Messengers to search for the unnamed authors, printers and publishers of The North Briton and to seize them and their papers. Wilkes and a number of printers and apprentices were rounded up under the warrant, eventually achieved their release and brought actions for false imprisonment and trespass. Wilkes, of course, was a prominent politician but the others were ordinary folk who had never brought such actions before. The juries found for the plaintiffs and awarded them large sums in damages. In none of these cases was the issue of the legality of such warrants clearly raised and decided, although both Chief Justice Pratt, of the Court of Common Pleas, and Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, expressed the view that they were not.
Indeed, Pratt CJ, in declining to interfere with the jury’s awards, observed that the jury had been struck by the Secretary of State ‘exercising arbitrary power, violating Magna Carta, and attempting to destroy the liberty of the kingdom’. The result was that it became unsafe to rely on general warrants and no more were issued.
Matters did come to head with Entick v Carrington. Halifax had issued a specific warrant, authorising Carrington and three other King’s messengers to search for the plaintiff, to seize and apprehend him, and bring him together with his books and papers, before the Secretary of State to be examined concerning his authorship of The Monitor, another weekly news-sheet, which was said to contain ‘gross and scandalous reflections and invectives upon His Majesty’s government and upon both Houses of Parliament’. The jury found that the messengers had broken and entered the plaintiff’s house, had stayed there for four hours, all the time disturbing him in his possession thereof, had searched several rooms, and in one bureau or writing desk, and several drawers, had read over and examined several of his papers, and seized and taken away some of his books and papers. They had also seized and taken away the plaintiff, who had then been released on bail, and was released from his recognisances a few months later. This was all part of the government strategy. They did not generally plan to prosecute for sedition, merely to harass and disrupt publication. Cleverly, Entick’s claim was not for false imprisonment, but for trespass to land and goods. The jury returned a special verdict, setting out the facts and asking whether the search and seizure in pursuance of the warrant were lawful; if not, they awarded £300 in damages. This time, the issue of the legality could not be avoided. Lord Camden, as Pratt CJ had become, presiding over the full Court of Common Pleas, was determined to decide it. The court found for the plaintiff.
As to the claim that such warrants had been in use, at least since the Glorious Revolution, ‘[T]he usage of these warrants since the Revolution, if it began then, is too modern to be law; the common law did not begin with the Revolution; the ancient constitution which had been almost overthrown and destroyed was then repaired and revived; the Revolution added a new buttress to the ancient venerable edifice.’ As to the lack of challenge hitherto: ‘It must have been the guilt or poverty of those upon whom such warrants have been executed, that deterred or hindered them from contending against the power of a Secretary of State and the Solicitor of the Treasury, or such warrants could never have passed for lawful till this time.’
The court had to accept that there were binding precedents recognising the power of the Secretary of State to issue warrants of arrest and committal, not only for high treason, but also for seditious libel. Departing from them would be more damaging to the law than following them, even though the court disapproved of them as contrary to history. But it refused to go further and allow for searches and seizures. The evidence given in all the earlier cases which Pratt CJ had tried had shown how these could be used in an arbitrary and speculative manner:
‘If this is law it would be found in our books, but no such law ever existed in this country; our law holds the property of every man so sacred that no man can set his foot upon his neighbour’s close without his leave; . . . if there was [such a law] it would destroy all the comforts of society; for papers are often the dearest property a man can have.’
Once again, the appeal is to history, to the venerable edifice of the common law. Not only that, although the action was for interference with property, the real gravamen was seen as the interference with privacy. This is a clear foretaste, not only of article 4 of the American Bill of Rights, but also of the ‘right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence’, now protected by article 8 of the European Convention. The court also held that where torts had been committed, there was no defence of state necessity. There could be limits placed on liberty, for it must not become licentiousness, but if Parliament wanted to permit the seizure of seditious libels before they were published, it would have to legislate to do so. Furthermore, if Parliament wanted to authorise state officials to commit torts, it would have to do so in clear terms. This too is a clear forerunner of what we now call the principle of legality – that if Parliament wishes to legislate to interfere with fundamental rights, it must make itself crystal clear, so that Parliamentarians understand what they are voting for and are prepared to take the political risk in doing so.
An example is the very first case to be heard in the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, Ahmed v Her Majesty’s Treasury,16 where we held that the very generally worded power in the United Nations Act 1946, to make Orders in Council in order to comply with our obligations under the United Nations Charter, did not entitle the government to over-ride fundamental rights and thus to make provision for freezing the assets of suspected terrorists without due process of law.
Entick v Carrington, as it seems to me, provides the link between the first great idea in Magna Carta and the present day. There is the appeal to the ‘ancient constitution’, the common law which would be found in the ‘books’ if it existed. There is the recognition that governmental power must not only be exercised in accordance with the law, but that the object of the law is to avoid the arbitrary and capricious use of power, and that there must be proper judicial safeguards for that purpose. All of these principles are with us to this day. They are enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and explain why so many of its guarantees are as much concerned with process as they are with outcomes.17 But we should not forget that these principles are also enshrined in the common law.
That brings me to the second great idea which we can trace back to Magna Carta. In what became chapter 29 the King promised not to violate the rights of free men except by the lawful judgment of his peers or the law of the land. But what was the law of the land? At that stage, it could only have been ancient custom and practice, which developed into the common law, and perhaps the decrees of the King. It is interesting to compare the two great medieval treatises on The Laws and Customs of England. Glanvill, writing in about 1190, before Magna Carta, included the statement that ‘what please the Prince has force of law’; but Bracton, writing in about 1230, left this out, saying that ‘whatever has been rightly decided and approved with counsel and consent of the magnates and general agreement of the community, with the authority of the king or prince first added hereto, has the force of law’. As he explained, ‘the King ought not to be subject to man, but subject to God and the Law’.
In the original Magna Carta, the King had also promised not to levy taxes without consent, save in a very limited number of customary circumstances. The body which was there contemplated as giving that consent was the Great Council of the realm, summoned in accordance with Chapter 14, a clear forerunner of today’s House of Lords. The earliest use of the word ‘Parliament’ to refer to the Great Council was in 1236. But another anniversary which we are celebrating this year is the 750th anniversary of Simon de Montfort’s second Parliament in 1265.
Parliament is holding a Festival of Freedoms to commemorate what is often thought of as the first real Parliament. The practice of summoning two ‘knights of the shires’ from each county in England had already begun. De Montfort added to this by summoning two burgesses from the boroughs. This became the invariable practice from 1327. Thus the House of Commons took the shape which it retained until the great Reform Act of 1832 took the first faltering steps towards universal suffrage, a process which was only completed in 1928, when we became a real democracy.
No doubt many Kings would have done without Parliament if they could. But the reality was that they needed Parliament’s consent if they were to be able to raise the taxes they needed to wage their wars. Not only that, by the mid 15th century, Sir John Fortescue, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, in his treatise In Praise of the Laws of England, could say that ‘The King of England cannot alter nor change the laws of his realm at his pleasure. . . . he can neither change Lawes without the consent of his subjects, nor yet charge them with strange impositions against their wils’.
Of course, it took the upheavals of the 17th century, culminating in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, for it to be finally established that ‘levying money for or to the use of the Crown by pretence of prerogative without grant of Parliament . . . is illegal’. Just as it takes clear words to empower the executive to interfere with fundamental rights, it takes clear words to empower the executive to levy charges. As every Law student knows, a power to regulate the sale of milk by issuing licences to buy it does not include a power to charge the purchaser 2d a gallon for the privilege.
Indeed, levying taxes and authorising the government to spend the proceeds is the one area of control of the economy over which Parliament does have some oversight. As Tony Prosser has shown, there are many other ways in which the economy is regulated these days, through the money supply, interest rates, various regulatory bodies, government procurement, and so on, over which Parliament has little or no control.20 Indeed, it may be that in today’s world, Parliamentary control of taxation and expenditure is less than wholly effective. But at least the principle first established in Magna Carta is maintained.
The Glorious Revolution also finally established that the King could not suspend or dispense with the law, and that only the King in Parliament could make new laws. That does, of course, mean that Parliament can take away our rights, or limit our freedoms, as the court acknowledged in Entick v Carrington. A striking example is the Security Service Act 1996, which gave the Security Service the new function of supporting the police in the prevention and detection of crime.
The Secretary of State was thus empowered to grant warrants, on the application of the Security Service, authorising them to enter private property, to interfere with it, and to bug it, in pursuit of this new function, all without judicial control. Hence the Security Service, acting in a policing role, has greater powers than the police do. This was in the days when Law Lords were Members of the House of Lords and entitled to take part in its Parliamentary business. Lord Browne Wilkinson was scathing:
‘What has never happened in police matters hitherto, since Entick v Carrington, is proposed in this Bill almost by accident; that is to say, an executive warrant enabling entry into English property; the burgling and bugging of it, under executive warrant, which is the very thing which has been fought by the law and all interested in liberty, for many hundreds of years.’
That is why, in most other countries in the world, there is a superior law, a Constitution or a Bill or Charter of Rights, which limits the powers of the legislature to pass laws which infringe such fundamental rights. Indeed, at the Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges conference recently, after I had explained that the Human Rights Act did not allow the courts to strike down Acts of Parliament which were incompatible with fundamental rights, a delegate clearly could not understand how Parliament could be permitted to pass an Act which was unconstitutional. But that has always been the position and I doubt very much whether most of us, brought up on the doctrine that ‘Parliament can make or unmake any law’, would want it any different.
However, we are beginning to recognise that not all Acts of Parliament are equal. Some of them may have a special constitutional status, which means that they cannot be impliedly repealed or amended by a later Act of Parliament. Once again, clear words would be needed to bring about such a constitutional change. Thus, in the ‘Metric Martyrs’ case, section 1 of the Weights and Measures Act 1985, an ordinary Act of Parliament, which permitted the continued use of imperial weights and measures, could not be taken to have impliedly repealed section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972, which recognised the supremacy of community law by empowering the use of subordinate legislation to comply with a European Directive requiring the primary use of metric measures.23 Among the ‘constitutional’ statutes listed was Magna Carta. On the other hand, the European Communities Act could not be taken to have authorised the courts to disobey article 9 of the Bill of Rights, that ‘freedom of speech and debate or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or called in question in any court or place out of Parliament’, so as to permit the court to investigate whether the Parliamentary scrutiny to be given to the bills authorising HS2 was sufficient to comply with the Environmental Impact Directive. In both of those cases, Magna Carta was, of course, listed among the examples of such constitutional statutes. The reverse, however, is not so far the case: there is no such thing as an unconstitutional statute.
The sovereignty of Parliament should, of course, place a heavy burden on Parliament to legislate with great care when fundamental rights are at stake. In this country, we can place some reliance on what Dominic Grieve has called ‘an entirely distinctive national narrative, embodying the Common Law; its confirmation through Magna Carta and its numerous reissues in the Middle Ages, the outcome of the conflict of authority between King and Parliament in the 17th century, in the Petition of Right, the abolition of the Star Chamber and the prohibition of torture; habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights of 1689, Lord Mansfield’s ruling on slavery in Somerset’s case and the Commentaries of William Blackstone.’
He goes on to suggest that ‘This national narrative has been so powerful that it has acted as an almost mythic restraint on successive British governments trying to curb freedoms when tempted to do so by threats to public order or national security . . . ’ This brings me to the third great idea which we can trace back before Magna Carta, the idea which we now call the Rule of Law. In fact, as Lord Bingham has shown, that embraces several ideas. But its essence lies in two principles. The first is that everyone is subject to the law, the governors as well as the governed. Then, the King and his officers had to act within the limits of what the law allowed. Now, the government and all other public bodies have to act within the limits of what the law allows. It is the job of the higher courts to ensure that they do. For most of the time, this means that the court is acting as the servant of Parliament. Most public bodies, being creatures of statute, derive their powers from Acts of Parliament or subordinate legislation. The role of the court is, not to exercise those powers for them, but to ensure that they are exercised in accordance with the law, not outside the limits of what their powers allow, in a fair and proper manner and not without reason. Sometimes, of course, the executive’s power derives from other sources, most notably the royal prerogative. But since Magna Carta there have been limits to the royal prerogative and it is now the role of the higher courts to ensure that government stays within those limits.
In this connection, I cannot resist mentioning the case of the Chagos islanders, because it is a case in which Magna Carta itself might have made a difference. When, in the 1960s, the British decided to lease Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago, to the United States as a military base, it was also decided to remove all the islanders. This was done with a ‘callous disregard’ for the islanders’ interests. A new colony was created and its Commissioner given power to make laws for the ‘peace, order and good government’ of the colony. This was done under the royal prerogative to legislate for the colonies by Order in Council without Parliamentary approval. The Commissioner used his power to ban anyone from entering or remaining on the islands without permission. Years later, in 2001, Mr Bancoult successfully challenged the Commissioner’s Order as outside his legislative powers. At first, the government accepted this.
But in 2004, for reasons that are still obscure and controversial, they changed their minds and decided to reinstate the ban. This time they did it, not by giving legislative power to the Commissioner, but by enacting a new Constitution by Order in Council which itself prohibited entry except in accordance with a new Immigration Order. Mr Bancoult brought a second set of proceedings to quash the new Orders. He succeeded in the High Court and Court of Appeal, but failed in the House of Lords, by a majority of three to two.
Among the many arguments deployed on behalf of the islanders was one based on chapter 29 of Magna Carta: ‘No freeman shall be . . . exiled . . . but by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land’. It was accepted that Parliament might pass a law exiling a person from his homeland, but it was argued that an Order in Council in the exercise of the royal prerogative could not do so. Three of the Law Lords disposed of this argument by holding that the Orders were ‘the law of the land’ for the purpose of chapter 29. Two of the Law Lords held that there had never been a prerogative power to exile a population from its homeland. Magna Carta, and the later development of its principles by Blackstone and Lord Mansfield, lay at the heart of their reasoning.
But there is another aspect to the rule of law, which can also be derived from Magna Carta’s most famous guarantee: ‘we will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man right or justice’. In modern terms, everyone has the right to access to justice: access to justice to defend themselves against the accusation that they have committed a criminal offence or should be subjected to some other form of penalty; access to justice to defend themselves against a civil claim; access to justice to assert a civil claim or to vindicate a right. It is a core function of the modern state to provide such access. Indeed, it has been argued that access to justice is even more important than access to other public services:
‘Just as the modern State tries to protect the poorer classes against the common dangers of life, such as unemployment, disease, old age, social oppression, etc, so it should protect them when legal difficulties arise. Indeed the case for such protection is stronger than the case for any other form of protection. The State is not responsible for the outbreak of epidemics, for old age or economic crises. But the State is responsible for the law.’
Those words were written in the context of access to lawyers but access to justice is even more fundamental than that. In a speech to the Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges’ Association, the Lord Chief Justice has recently commented that government and Parliament may not fully understand how important access to justice is to the maintenance of the rule of law. It is therefore the role of leadership judges to engage with them both, and with the public, to try and explain. So here is my simple attempt to do so.
The importance of affording a fair trial to persons accused of crime is not always obvious. All too often, our trial processes seem to the great British public to result in the acquittal of the guilty. We do, of course, have an obligation to make such processes fair to the alleged victims as well as to the alleged perpetrators. But, as it seems to me, a large part of the importance of a fair criminal process is to reassure the law-abiding: if we obey the law, we shall not be punished. If there is a risk of arbitrary and unjust punishment, what incentive is there to obey the law? In this connection, therefore, it is important to scrutinise any incentive to persons accused of crime to admit their guilt to police officers, or to plead guilty in court, in order to ensure that they do not place improper or unfair pressure on the innocent. An example is the recently introduced criminal court charge, levied on those who are convicted after having pleaded not guilty. I make no comment on whether this is, or is not, improper or unfair. My point is only that such pressures to plead guilty have always been rightly treated with suspicion in our common law world.
The importance of ensuring that people who have civil claims can also have access to justice to enforce or vindicate them is also not always obvious. Sometimes we in the justice system have only ourselves to blame. In my own world of family law, we have been so keen to encourage separating parents or spouses to settle things between themselves, that we may have neglected those who cannot, or cannot reasonably be expected to, do so. It is all very well to promote family mediation (as President of National Family Mediation I am naturally a supporter). Fighting in court is financially and emotionally exhausting and unlikely to promote the constructive relationships which are vital to successful parenting in future. But mediation can only work fairly and properly if it is backed up by the knowledge on both sides that a fair and just system of adjudication will be available if it fails. Otherwise the bully will always win. Where the family justice system led, the civil justice system soon followed. Fighting in court is to be avoided if at all possible. Alternative dispute resolution processes are to be encouraged. Once again, however, these can only work fairly and properly if they are backed up by the knowledge on both sides that a system of adjudication will be available if they fail. Not only that, people and businesses need to know, on the one hand, that they will be able to enforce their debts and their civil claims if they have to do so, and, on the other hand, that if they fail to meet their obligations, there is likely to be a remedy against them. It is that knowledge which keeps the world of business and commerce going. It is that knowledge which makes every-day economic and social relations possible. Once again, therefore, steps which look as if they may impede such access have to be scrutinised with care.
For example, we can argue about whether or not it should be unlawful to sack a woman just because she is pregnant. But for as long as we have such a law, she has to have a realistic possibility of bringing a claim if the law is broken. It cannot be right effectively to subvert such a law by making it practically impossible to assert the rights which it gives her. Once again, I make no comment on whether the levels at which court and tribunal fees are now set is an unfair deterrent to those who quite properly seek access to justice to vindicate their claims. The point is that, if Magna Carta is to mean anything today, right or justice must not be unfairly denied to anyone.
I cannot resist adding that, as well as being the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the 250th anniversary of Entick v Carrington, and the 750th anniversary of the de Montfort Parliament, this is also the 15th anniversary of the coming into force of the Human Rights Act, which has reinforced the great ideas of Magna Carta in many ways, and we all hope and expect that those great ideas will be at the forefront of any proposals for reform. So, I ask again, did that brave Hungarian peasant girl die in vain? I think not. The pledges which she made King John ‘sign’ remain the basic principles of our Constitution today. But we all have to be alert to maintain those principles in the face of the very different risks and complexities of the modern world.
October 19, 2015
Speech by Lord Dyson: Magna Carta and Compensation Culture
13 October 2015. Rt Hon Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls at The High Sheriff of Oxfordshire’s Annual Law Lecture.
1. My first idea was to give a lecture about the so-called Compensation Culture: what is it and should we be concerned about it? That is a topical subject which the organisers of the lecture thought would be of interest. But as we all know, 2015 is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and it was pointed out to me that the Bodleian Library has no fewer than 4 of the 17 surviving pre-1300 engrossments of Magna Carta. So I was asked whether I could introduce a Magna Carta theme into my lecture? I did not want to give up on Compensation Culture. Hence the somewhat Delphic title of the lecture “Magna Carta and the Compensation Culture”. The title was the easy bit.
2. On Christmas Eve 1166, Henry II’s youngest son John was born at Beaumont Palace in this great city. The Palace no longer exists, but set into a pillar on the north side of Beaumont Street is a stone which bears the inscription “near to this site stood the King’s Houses later known as Beaumont Palace”. John was not a good king. According to one historian he was not even a good ‘bad’ king’. Unlike his Angevin predecessors who were ‘effective tyrants’, John did not even qualify to earn that doubtful accolade. As we approach the end of 2015, we do not need to be reminded that the most enduring consequence of John’s reign is Magna Carta.
3. Magna Carta, or – as it was originally known – the Charter of Runnymede, started life as a peace treaty between John and his barons, a significant number of whom could no longer tolerate the way in which he abused his powers as King. A particularly egregious example was his misuse of the justice system. In the words of McKechnie, he used it to satisfy ‘his lust and greed’. The machinery of justice was nothing more than ‘instruments of extortion and outrage’ by which he could channel the flow of ever increasing amounts of money into the royal coffers.
4. One of the ways in which John achieved this was by selling justice to the highest bidder. Since 1209, the Court of Common Pleas had followed the King around the country. Cases were decided by the King’s Court. In addition to John, it included ‘the whole body of counsellors, ministers, knights, clerks and domestic servants who (accompanied the King).’ Not an independent court, as we would know it. Decisions were made either by the King himself or, if by others, they were heavily influenced by him.
5. This system provided the perfect environment for the making of what were known as ‘proffers’. Proffers were payments of money made by litigants to the King in order to obtain favourable decisions. And if one litigant was willing to make a proffer, his opponent might consider that he had to make a higher proffer in order to win the case. In other words, justice was sold to the highest bidder on the basis that they would receive a pay-out if judgment was obtained in their favour. Money was not only paid to secure favourable decisions at the end of a hearing. It was also paid to halt justice in its tracks. In order to secure support for his war efforts, in 1206 John offered the incentive to his knights that, if they joined the army, claims against them would be stayed.
6. In view of John’s predilection for deciding disputes involving his barons which would previously have been dealt with by a Court of Barons – that is by the barons’ peers–it is hardly surprising that in 1215 abuse of justice featured prominently in the list of the barons’ grievances and consequently in the clauses of Magna Carta.
7. Thus chapter 17 provided: “ordinary lawsuits shall not follow the royal court around, but shall be heard in a fixed place”. The Court of Common Pleas was to resume sitting at Westminster Hall. Chapter 45 guaranteed that the King would only appoint ‘such men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well’ as judges. No longer were claims to be decided by those unqualified in the law. Chapter 39 provided that ‘No free man shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.’ The barons were to be judged by their peers in the Barons’ Court or by the law of the land. No longer were they to be subject to the capricious rulings of the King and his court. And Chapter 40 guaranteed that ‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.’ The age of the proffer, of abuse of the justice system as a means of swelling the Exchequer’s coffers, was to be brought to an end.
8. Chapters 39 and 40 are famous to this day. They have a resonance which continues to thrill. They remain on the statute book, in slightly revised language, as section 29 of the 1297 version of Magna Carta. While they were born out of the barons’ immediate concerns to put an end to John’s abuse of the justice system at their expense and to restore their privileges they have, over the centuries, taken on a life far beyond that narrow self-interest. They stand today as a symbol of our commitment to equality before the law, access to justice and the Rule of Law. In the 17th century they were an inspiration for Lord Coke CJ and the Parliamentarians in the struggle between the Stuart Kings and Parliament. Later they inspired the American revolutionaries in their battle against the English.
9. One tenet of Magna Carta that remains as valid now as it was in 1215 is its statement that justice shall be done by ‘the law of the land’. It is not surprising that our view of what the law of the land should be today differs markedly from what the barons thought it should be in 1215. But the principle that justice should be done according to the law of the land is as important today as it was in 1215. Establishing and preserving the rule of law is a vital pillar of our democratic system. To use the language of a later version of Magna Carta, justice must be determined according to ‘the due process of law.’
10. Our common law has developed over the centuries in response to changing social and economic circumstances. Sometimes it has developed slowly and almost imperceptibly; sometimes it has taken large strides forwards. All of this is entirely consistent with the rule of law provided that the developments are visible, applicable to all who wish to have access to the law and disputes as to the application of the law continue to be determined fairly by independent judges.
11. A well-known example of a giant leap forward of the common law in this country is the famous 1932 case of Donoghue v Stevenson. The alleged facts are probably well known to many of you. Two people went into a café in Paisley, near Glasgow. One bought the other a bottle of ginger beer. Half the contents of the bottle were poured into a glass and consumed. The rest of the ginger beer was then poured into the glass. A rather strange-looking object fell out of the bottle. On close inspection it appeared to be the decomposing body of a snail. Shortly afterwards the woman who drank the ginger beer developed a severe stomach upset. She started proceedings claiming compensation from the manufacturer of the drink.
12. She could not claim damages for breach of contract because she had no contract with the manufacturer or with the owner of the café. She framed her claim in tort. But at that time it had not been established that such a claim could be made. In one of the most far-reaching and important cases in the development of our law, the House of Lords decided that such a claim could in principle be brought in the tort of negligence. Thus, provided that the manufacturer owed the woman a duty of care and she had suffered loss as a result of a breach of that duty, she would be entitled to compensation for her loss. The House formulated the rule for determining whether a duty of care was owed. The essence of the rule was enshrined in the “neighbour principle”. This was a far cry from simply asserting that, provided that the woman had suffered loss as a result of consuming the ginger beer, she would be entitled to compensation. This was a principled development by our independent judges of the law of the land as expressed in our common law. It was made in response to the perceived social and economic needs of the time. In its essentials, it was a natural application of the principles of Magna Carta.
13. It is time to turn to the issue of compensation which lies at the heart of this lecture. The socalled compensation culture has been criticised as a form of abuse with as much passion as the barons complained of John’s abuses. An article by Professor Frank Furedi in 2012 complained about it ‘poisoning our society’. A number of academic, government and Parliamentary studies have made recommendations as to how it should be tackled. Parliament has twice passed legislation aimed at eliminating or at least reducing it: the Compensation Act 2006 and the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Act 2015.
14. There is nothing new in the idea that, where a right is infringed, monetary compensation is the primary means by which the law makes good any loss caused by the infringement. It was present in the first English law code, issued by King Æthelberht, King of Kent, in about 602 CE.12 It set out a detailed set of fines and compensation. If, for example, a freeman was found to have committed adultery he would be required to pay the injured party a ‘wergeld’ – the value of the injured party’s life. He would also have to ‘provide another wife with his own money, and bring her to the other.’ More prosaically: loss of an eye required payment of fifty shillings compensation; loss of a thumb, twenty shillings; and loss of the shooting finger – the one needed to use a bow and arrow effectively – eight shillings. If you cut someone’s ear off you were required to pay compensation of twelve shillings. If you merely mutilated it, you would only have to pay six shillings.18 If, however, you cut the ear off and your victim was deaf in the other ear, you would have to pay twenty-five shillings. Compensation was proportionate to the harm; a requirement that was later echoed in Magna Carta’s treatment of criminal offences: it required punishments to fit the crime – to be proportionate to the offence.
15. By the 19th Century, the idea of compensation for harm was as well established as it had been in the 7th Century. Records held by Aviva, the insurance company, provide some fascinating detail. A grocer who slipped while playing blind man’s buff was awarded the equivalent of £724 compensation. A travelling salesman who was watching an accident, while on the top deck of an open-topped tram and was hit by a pole received the equivalent of £401 compensation. A wedding guest who was hit in the eye with rice thrown presumably over the happy couple received the equivalent of £2,994. And, for slipping on orange peel whilst shopping, a bank clerk received the equivalent of £8,901 compensation. The level of compensation may have changed over time, but the principle underpinning the Anglo-Saxon and Victorian approaches was the same: if one person was legally responsible for causing harm to another, he was required to pay the victim compensation to vindicate his rights and make good the harm caused. This principle continues to apply today. We have our own version of Æthelberht’s code which indicates the level at which compensation should be awarded. The Judicial College Guidelines for the Assessment of General Damages in Personal Injury Cases is a distillation of typical awards of damages made by judges for various personal injuries. For example, it states that loss of an eye now attracts between £40,300 and £48,200 compensation; and minor or transient eye injuries, such as that which the Victorian wedding guest suffered, would attract compensation of between £1,620 and £6,400.
16. There is therefore nothing new about the idea that the law requires the payment of fair compensation for harm which results from civil wrongs. It is long established. It is one of the hallmarks of the Rule of Law and of the law of our land. But what is compensation culture and how does it fit in to all of this? Lord Falconer, who was Lord Chancellor at the time, gave an apt definition in 2005. He put it this way:
‘‘Compensation culture’ is a catch-all expression. . . It’s the idea that for every accident someone is at fault. For every injury, someone to blame. And, perhaps most damaging, for every accident, there is someone to pay.”
It is the idea that for every accident and every resultant injury or loss, someone other than the victim of the accident is to blame. The victim must, therefore, always be compensated. It is important not to confuse compensation culture with no fault compensation. No fault compensation is a legal principle according to which a person (C) is entitled to compensation for loss caused by another person (D) regardless of whether D was in any way at fault. This is an intellectually respectable principle which society may choose to embrace. But in doing so, it must face up to its costs and economic consequences.
17. On the other hand, the compensation culture is not a legal principle at all. It has not displaced the principles of the law of negligence, whose essential elements remain as they were propounded in Donoghue v Stevenson. Rather, to the extent that it exists, it is evidence of an attitude borne of an expectation as to how in particular defendants will behave in their approach to the application of the principles of the law of negligence. In short, an expectation that defendants will pay up rather than fight and risk losing. This has led to the idea that the compensation culture implies that there is no need to establish that a duty of care was owed to the injured party by whoever is viewed as being responsible; and there is no need to establish a breach of duty and causation of loss. All that the injured person has to do is to litigate (or even merely threaten to litigate) irrespective of the legal merits of the claim, and compensation will follow.
18. One consequence of this is the view that as a society we have undergone a cultural shift. No longer is British society characterised by a somewhat philosophical and accepting approach to life. On the contrary, the view is taken that we are becoming more American in our approach; more ready to rush into litigation. To borrow from Tony Weir, we have become a ‘wondrously unstoical and whingeing society with (an) endemic compensation neurosis’, and which rather than sees us ‘grin and bear it’ sees us ‘grit (our) teeth and sue’.
19. Perhaps even more dangerously, this shift in approach has been accompanied by a growing concern that an unjustified burden is now being placed on employers, businesses, schools, the NHS and local and central government (as regards payment of compensation and, even worse, legal costs which often substantially exceed the amount of compensation). To make matters worse, all of this is said to be giving rise to defensive practices on the part of such bodies. It is said that, as a consequence of the compensation culture, schools now ban conker fights on health and safety grounds; and school trips no longer take place. I should say that the conker story rests on a misunderstanding of the law by a no-doubt well-meaning head-teacher and has been described by the Health and Safety Executive as ‘a truly classic myth.’
20. Media stories to this effect are commonplace. They tend to be about payments of large amounts of money for seemingly trivial injuries; not unlike those mentioned in Aviva’s records from the 19th Century. In June 2011 a school pupil was reported as having received nearly £6,000 in compensation. He had burnt his hand at school during his lunch break. Spilt custard was the cause. In 2013 a police officer was reported to have received £10,000 in compensation for injuries caused by a fall from a chair. More recently, a payment of £12,000 was reported to have been made to someone who was injured by a ‘toilet lid while flushing’. Someone else was apparently paid £12,566 compensation for injuries caused as a result of a foot becoming stuck in a Henry Hoover. A Google search will no doubt reveal many more such stories, each of which furthers the perception that something has gone badly wrong with civil justice in this country.
21. All of this acts as a spur to enterprising solicitors to encourage clients to launch speculative claims on a no-win no-fee basis. Clinical negligence claims are a good example. Some solicitors advertise their services on boards close to hospitals informing patients that, if they have not been satisfied with their treatment, they can sue the hospital authority at no cost to themselves. But many unsuccessful treatments are not the result of negligence. Patients may die despite the best possible surgery. The harsh commercial reality is that the legal costs to the NHS of defending a clinical negligence claim are often out of all proportion to the amount of damages that it will have to pay if the claim is successful. For this reason, the NHS is often willing to pay a claimant a sum to buy off a claim, even one which it considers is likely to fail. Claimant solicitors are only too aware of this.
22. I should also mention whiplash claims. These are claims for damages for whiplash injuries usually sustained in motor accidents. It has been said that whiplash is a peculiarly UK disease. It accounts for about 80% of car accident injury claims. In other countries, the figure is far lower. There is no doubt that there has been something of a whiplash industry in our country in recent years and our Government is rightly trying to do something about it. The problem is that insurers usually pay up because the cost of contesting the claims is simply too high. All of this would tend to suggest that litigation is out of control and that we are in the grips of compensation fever. Is this really the case? As I shall now explain, the situation is not straightforward.
23. Let us take the case of the school child who was reported as having received almost £6,000 for the burn that he sustained from hot custard. It is easy to see how this could be portrayed by the media as an example of the compensation culture running riot. £6,000 may seem a ridiculous amount of money to pay by way of compensation for a burn caused by custard. But how hot was the custard and how serious the burn? If it caused no real pain or lasting harm, then the payment was clearly exorbitant. But if the burn was severe and painful and left permanent scarring, the position would have been quite different. In other words, one’s perception of the reasonableness of compensation is coloured by the way in which the story is presented.
24. The difference between perception and reality is well illustrated by two famous examples drawn from America. They were relied on by Anthony Hilton in an article he wrote in the Daily Mail in 2003. He said: ‘The claims culture and the compensation culture have taken root [here]. . . It is not as bad yet as in the United States, for which we should be grateful. McDonald’s had to pay out for not telling a customer the coffee she bought and then spilled was hot, but a similar claim here was tossed out because coffee is meant to be hot. That is as nothing, however, when compared with the Winnebago case where the driver left the wheel of his mobile home while his vehicle was speeding down the freeway and went into the back to brew a coffee. With no-one steering, the vehicle crashed, but the owner sued successfully because no-one had told him it was unsafe to leave the driver’s seat when doing 70mph.’
25. The facts alleged in the Winnebago case were that a woman was awarded $1.7M in compensation after putting her motor vehicle on cruise control at 70 mph, and then getting up to make herself a cup of coffee in the back. She claimed that Winnebago (the manufacturer) should have warned her that she could not leave the driver’s seat after putting the cruise control on. The basis of the claim was that it had failed to put a warning in the driver’s manual explaining that cruise control was not an auto-pilot device. This is an extraordinary tale and, if true, would have been a good example of the wilder excesses of the compensation culture. But the problem with the story is that it is simply not true. As the Los Angeles Times described it, it was “a complete fabrication”.
26. As portrayed by the media, the spilt coffee case involved a woman who foolishly placed cup of hot coffee between her legs while she was driving a car. She had bought the coffee from a drive-thru McDonald’s. She had to brake the car suddenly and the coffee spilt over her legs. She sued McDonalds. They were to blame for her burnt legs. A court agreed and she was awarded many millions of dollars in damages. That is the story; the reality is rather different.
27. The case was a real case, namely Lieback v McDonald’s Restaurant. Stella Leiback, the injured party, was in a car. But she was not driving. She was a passenger. And the accident did not occur when the car suddenly stopped. It happened when it was stationary. She had not placed the coffee between her legs because that was convenient whilst she was driving. She placed it there to hold it still while she tried to take the lid off. The coffee was extremely hot. In fact, it was between 180 – 190 degrees fahrenheit. It did spill and burn her. It caused third-degree burns to various parts of her body, resulting in a hospital stay of eight days for treatment, skin grafts. It caused her to suffer permanent scarring and two years’ partial disability. She did not rush to the courts. She only sued McDonalds after it had rejected her request for payment of her medical expenses and her daughter’s lost wages (her daughter had had to take time of work to look after her). In total she had asked for $10,000 to $15,000. In the face of that refusal, she issued proceedings not in negligence, but under a certain strict liability statutory provisions.
28. The claim went to trial before a civil jury. Jurors can comment on their experience in the US. Some of them were reported as having commented that they were ‘insulted’ to be asked to hear such a case, that it ‘sounded ridiculous’, and that it was a waste of time over a ‘cup of coffee’. It seems that these jurors thought that this was a case of compensation culture run wild. But their view changed during the trial. The evidence showed that between 1982 and 1992, more than 700 claims had been brought against McDonalds arising out of coffee burns, some of them third-degree burns. McDonalds knew that the coffee, which it insisted on serving at a temperature of between 180 and 190 degrees, was dangerous. Its quality assurance manager admitted that the coffee was not ‘fit for consumption’ and that it would scald the throat. Its expert witness accepted that coffee served at more than 130 degrees could produce third degree burns, and that coffee served at a temperature of 190 degrees would burn skin in two to three seconds. It is, therefore, not surprising that the jury was willing to find that the coffee was a defective product, and that McDonalds had sold it in breach of the implied warranty of merchantability and of fitness for purpose.
29. The jury found in Ms Leiback’s favour, albeit with a reduction of 20% for contributory negligence on her part. She was awarded $160,000 for the injuries and $2.7 million in punitive damages, which was intended to represent two days’ profits earned by McDonalds from coffee-related sales. The judge reduced this aspect of the award to $480,000. Despite the judgment, the claim was subsequently settled for an undisclosed sum, no doubt in the face of a possible appeal. It can therefore be seen that the portrayal of this case by Mr Hilton in his article was a caricature. This was a serious claim which amply justified an award of compensation.
30. So what is the position in England and Wales? The perception is clear: compensation culture has taken firm root here and unwarranted and excessive compensation is routinely paid to claimants. This perception seems to persist despite studies and reports showing, as a Parliamentary enquiry put it, that the ‘evidence does not support the view that increased litigation has created a “compensation culture”. It is worth asking whether the behaviour of our courts has contributed to this perception. Let me give you some examples which show that our judges are astute not to do anything to encourage the bringing of unjustified claims.
31. My first example is an English version of the US McDonald’s coffee case. In 2002, thirty-six claimants, the majority of whom were children aged between four and sixteen, sued McDonalds. The claims were all for personal injuries which were said to have been caused by spilled hot drinks. Some of the claims were based on alleged negligence; others were brought under consumer protection legislation. As Field J put it, there ‘was a risk that a visitor might be badly scalded and suffer a deep thickness burn by a hot drink that is spilled or knocked over after it has been served.’Unlike Ms Liebeck, the claimants failed on all issues. McDonald’s was held not to have been negligent in serving coffee at high temperatures. The judge held that the cups and their lids had not been designed and manufactured negligently and there had been no breach of consumer protection law.
32. My second example is Tomlinson v Congleton Borough Council & Others which was decided by the House of Lords in 2003. One hot bank holiday in 1995, the claimant decided to go for a swim. He and friends were in the local park. They had been there many times before. In the park there was a flooded sand quarry, which had been made into a place for families to sunbathe and paddle in the water. As it was such a nice day and he was hot, the claimant decided to dive into the water to cool off. This was not the first time he had done this. Tragically however he hit his head on the bottom of the quarry. He broke his neck and, as a consequence was left a tetraplegic. He sued the local council. The House of Lords rejected the claim. In doing so Lord Hoffmann reiterated a principle that is entirely at odds with the idea that our courts are promoting a compensation culture. He said:
‘. . . the law does not provide such compensation simply on the basis that the injury was disproportionately severe in relation to one’s own fault or even not one’s own fault at all. Perhaps it should, but society might not be able to afford to compensate everyone on that principle, certainly at the level at which such compensation is now paid. The law provides compensation only when the injury was someone else’s fault.’
The law is fault-based. It requires a claimant to establish a duty of care, breach and causation of loss. These are not always straightforward matters and if a claimant fails to establish any one of them, his claim fails. The courts have not in recent years lowered the hurdles that a claimant must surmount.
33. My next example concerns occupiers’ liability as well as negligence. It is the case of West Sussex County Council v Pierce, which I heard in the Court of Appeal, and which the Daily Telegraph reported could have led to water fountains being ‘banished’ from schools. The claimant was a nine-year-old boy. He and his seven-year-old brother were in the school playground. They went over to the newly fitted stainless steel water fountain. It was of a type that is common throughout schools in England and Wales. The younger brother sprayed the claimant with water from the fountain. He retaliated and tried to punch his brother, who was cowering underneath the fountain. He missed, and his punch hit the underside of the fountain. He sustained ‘a laceration to the dorsal aspect of his right thumb and associated tendon damage.’
34. Apart from a small scar to his thumb, he made a full recovery. The claim was brought against the school on the basis that the water fountain had a sharp underside edge, which posed a ‘real and foreseeable risk of children coming into contact’ with it. It was said that the school had failed to consider the risk or take steps to mitigate it. At trial, having examined the water fountain, the judge held that it was sharp and that the school was liable for failing to consider the risk. The Court of Appeal overturned the decision. It too examined the water fountain, but did not agree that it could properly be described as sharp. It also held that the wrong legal test for liability had been applied by the judge. The legal question was whether, viewed objectively, the school was reasonably safe to those on the premises bearing in mind that children ‘are inclined the lark around.’ It was, and as Sharp LJ put it, ‘The School was not under a duty to safeguard children against harm under all circumstances. Each case is of course fact sensitive, but as a matter of generality, the School was no more obliged as an occupier to take such steps in respect of the water fountain than it would be in respect of any of the other numerous ordinary edges and corners or surfaces against which children might accidentally injure themselves whilst on the premises. The law would part company with common sense if that were the case, and I do not consider that it does so.’
35. Espousal of the compensation culture might suggest that any injury caused in the course of games or sporting activities ought to result in an award of damages. If correct, this would have a seriously adverse effect on professional sport as well as school and amateur sports. In 2004 in the case of Blake v Galloway, if you will forgive reference to another case in which I was involved, the Court of Appeal was asked to consider the question of liability for such injuries in a somewhat unusual context. The claimant was with a group of friends practising as part of a jazz quintet. They decided to take a break from their rehearsal. They went outside and started playing a rather bizarre impromptu game. It involved picking up and throwing twigs and bark at each other. The claimant picked up and threw a four-centimetre piece of bark at one of the others which hit him on the leg. His friend picked it up and threw it back at the claimant. It hit him in the right eye and caused a significant injury. The claimant issued proceedings alleging that the injury was caused by the defendant’s negligence and/or battery. The defendant, amongst other things, contended that the fact that they were playing a game meant that any liability was vitiated by the claimant’s consent. To rely on a consent-based defence it is however necessary first to establish liability. The Court of Appeal held that liability had not been established. In an informal game such as that in which the claimant and his friends had engaged (like in organised sport), liability was not established unless the offending conduct amounted to either reckless conduct or exhibited a very high degree of carelessness. If the defendant had, for example, chosen to throw a stone rather than a twig (contrary to the conventions of the informal game in which they were involved), that might have been reckless and sufficient to amount to a breach of duty of care. But what happened in this case was simply an unfortunate accident. There was no actionable negligence. What about the claim in battery? The general rule in sporting activities that involve the risk of physical contact is that the participants impliedly consent to such contact as can reasonably be expected in the course of the game. There was such implied consent here, as long as the participants did no more than throw twigs according to the tacit rules of their informal game. The defendant had done no more than this. The claimant accordingly had given his consent and could not establish liability for battery either. His claim was, therefore, rejected. This is another example of our courts adopting a robust, common sense approach to claims for compensation which is inconsistent with the idea that they are giving encouragement to the advancement of a compensation culture.
36. What do these four cases illustrate? I think one answer is that our courts are well aware of the dangers of contributing to the idea that all injuries should result in compensatory awards. They are decisions that cannot be seen as encouraging the idea that anyone who suffers an injury has a remedy in damages. The judgment of Field J in the Bogle case applied conventional, well-known and well-understood principles of law. The Tomlinson case underscored the necessity of establishing fault. The Pierce case showed that the risk of injury has to be real and foreseeable; remote or fanciful risks will not suffice. And Blake emphasised the need for culpability to the requisite standard as a condition of liability. A common theme is that accidents can and do happen and that the law does not compensate for accidents in the absence of legal responsibility.
37. Thus the reality of what goes on in our courts does not match the perception that we are in the grip of a compensation culture. The difference between the reality and the perception is problematic. In 1979 two US scholars wrote a famous article entitled Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: the case of divorce. It considered the effect that the framework provided by the law had upon divorce or rather the impact that legal framework had upon ‘on negotiations and bargaining that occur outside the courtroom.’48 The essential point that has been repeated by a number of scholars, including recently by Professor Dame Hazel Genn, is that the law casts a shadow far beyond the courtroom. It guides conduct. It provides the framework within which businesses operate, schools organise activities for pupils, doctors operate within hospitals, local authorities maintain pavements and so on. Moreover, it helps to create as Professor Genn puts it, ‘the credible threat of litigation if settlement is not achieved.’We act in the shadow of the law. What if the shadow is a false one? If, for instance, we have a false perception that the law prohibits certain activities or requires certain steps to be taken, we are likely to act in accordance with this perception. A perception that the law requires compensation for any accident regardless of the circumstances is likely to lead individuals, businesses and governments to act on the basis that the perception is true. This might have the consequence that nobody apologises for bumping into another person in case that is taken as an acknowledgement that an accident has occurred which attracts legal liability.
38. Another consequence might be that schools ban certain activities as a result of their misperception of the law. More significantly perhaps, a false shadow of the law might lead to threats of litigation and then to settlements that would not have been made if the law had been properly understood. This last concern is particularly worrying. As I said earlier, defendants are probably often induced to make what they refer to as “commercial” settlements for reasons which have little, if anything, to do with their assessment of the likely outcome of a court hearing. Litigation is inherently uncertain. The behaviour of witnesses and, dare I say it, judges is unpredictable. Most troubling of all is the fact that the cost of litigation is so high. Legal fees are exorbitant. The laws of competition and the market place seem to be helpless in resisting the rising tide of the cost of litigating. Many would-be litigants simply cannot afford to go to court. The obvious solution is to introduce reasonable and proportionate fixed legal costs. Our Government is taking a long time to grasp this nettle.
39. Meanwhile, the perception that we are in the continuing grip of a compensation culture casts its false shadow. It is a shadow that should vanish if the litigation landscape is surveyed properly in the bright light of the cases that have been, and I trust will continue to be, decided in this country. I have only mentioned four such cases. There are many more. They do not attract media publicity. That is because they are balanced and sensible and therefore do not make for a good story. They do not support the existence of a compensation culture. They are applications of “the law of the land”, that precious gem which shines in clause 39 of Magna Carta and which, 800 years later, continues to be rightly valued as essential to the well-being of our system of justice.
40. The link between the compensation culture and Magna Carta may not be immediately obvious. The existence of the link would certainly not have occurred to King John and the barons. Indeed, I am certain that I would not have chosen the title of this lecture if I had not been delivering it in 2015. But perhaps the link becomes a little less Delphic when one focuses on the significance of the phrase “the law of the land”. In this year when we celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, just as the barons demanded their right to receive justice according to the law of the land, we should remind ourselves of what the law actually requires and do what we can to explode the false perception of compensation culture.
41. Thank you.
August 17, 2015
What Magna Carta and the Race Relations Act mean to us today
‘What Magna Carta and the Race Relations Act mean to us today‘, 29 July 2015, Sir Rabinder Singh, Runnymede Trust Conference.
Click here to download this speech as a .pdf
I am honoured to have been invited to address you today. The Runnymede Trust is the leading organisation in this country dedicated to the promotion of
racial equality. When it was founded in 1968 by Jim Rose and Anthony Lester it took its name from the meadow by the Thames where the first Magna Carta
was sealed in 1215. I am particularly pleased that, among the understandable and widespread commemorations of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta,
the opportunity has not been lost also to remember that this is the 50th Anniversary of the first Race Relations Act in this country.
At first sight it is not obvious that there is any link between the two. It is well known that Magna Carta was sealed as part of a power struggle between King John and the Barons. They would hardly have been interested in creating an equal society. Furthermore, many of the references in Magna Carta itself are based on distinctions between people depending on their status: the reference to “all free men” clearly excluded those who were villeins. The institution of serfdom was very much alive at that time. And there were provisions in the 1215 version of Magna Carta which on their face discriminated against Jews.
Lord Sumption, who is not only a Justice of the Supreme Court but a distinguished historian, has described the sentiments which often surround
Magna Carta as “high minded tosh.”1 Although it is undoubtedly correct to question whether many of the modern readings of Magna Carta have any basis
in historical fact, it is also important to recall that the mythology surrounding such documents can itself have continuing impact on a society. As another historian, Professor Linda Colley, has observed, there is a “cult and mode of memory” which rests on bad history and which includes Magna Carta as the most important text in stories of liberty.2 The fact is that the phrase Magna Carta still has resonance for ordinary people in this country and they want to know, as Tony Hancock famously asked in 1957: “did she die in vain?”
And this is true not only in this country but around the world. Surely this is why, when Eleanor Roosevelt unveiled the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights in 1948, she said that it might well become an international Magna Carta for all humanity everywhere.
As Article 1 of the Universal Declaration proudly proclaims, all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Last year I gave a lecture on the development of human rights thought from Magna Carta to the Universal Declaration. I suggested then that we have come a long way since the explicit inequality which was embedded in the original Magna Carta but that nevertheless the lineage of modern human rights thought can be traced back
The respected scholar of human rights Francesca Klug has recently put the point as follows: “Whilst it would therefore be wildly historically inaccurate to bestow universal intentions on the multiple authors of the Charter, the principles established in the few clauses that remain on the statute book were nevertheless loosely enough phrased to allow for increasingly generous interpretations in the centuries that followed. Today a phrase such as ‘to no one will we deny justice’ has come to be understood as the very foundation of our modern, inclusive justice system.”
Nevertheless, it is important to be realistic about the limitations of Magna Carta, even making due allowance for its mythical status. To quote Francesca
Klug again: “This is no doubt in part because its legal remedies have been superseded by a range of statutes and case law that address modern concerns for equality and justice which a medieval document could not be expected to even conceive of. The disputes between a King and his English Barons on a field outside Windsor 800 years ago seem very remote from the struggles of a modern, diverse democracy (currently) composed of four nations and citizens who stem from all parts of the world. The Magna Carta would seem to have nothing to offer if you are disproportionately more likely to be stopped and searched by the police because of the colour of your skin or religious affiliation.”
This brings me on to the Race Relations Act. At common law it was not unlawful to discriminate against a person on racial grounds, for example their
colour. In the Britain of the 1960s it was commonplace for employers, estate agents and landlords to discriminate against people on such grounds. Some
progress had been made by the common law, for example the decision of Birkett J in Constantine v Imperial Hotels Ltd.6 The famous West Indian cricketer Sir Learie Constantine had been discriminated against by a hotel, whose white customers objected to his staying there. In that case the Court was able to find in his favour by relying on the common law duty of innkeepers to serve anyone who came to stay at a hotel unless it was for just cause. Nevertheless, it was not racial discrimination as such which was the legal basis of the cause of action in that case. There was no duty at common law not to discriminate against a person on racial grounds when it came to such aspects of life as employment, education and housing.
It was against that background, and also in the international context of the civil rights movement, in the USA in particular, that the Race Relations Act
was born in 1965. Just the year before the US Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act. However, the Race Relations Act in this country was a weaker
piece of legislation and certainly much weaker than what was to follow.
The 1965 Act was limited in its scope; limited as to who could take action under it; and limited in respect of the remedies which could be granted by the
The Race Relations Act 1965 prohibited discrimination on the grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins. At that time it did not cover nationality. Subsequent case law confirmed that “national origins” did not include the concept of nationality.
Furthermore, the 1965 Act did not cover areas which would now be familiar to us, such as housing or employment. Although the Act applied to “places of
public resort”, including hotels and restaurants, it did not apply to private boarding houses. It did not even apply to shops. The prohibited acts of
discrimination included refusing to serve a person, and unreasonable delay in serving them or overcharging them.
A body known as the Race Relations Board was set up to monitor the work of local conciliation committees. In cases where discrimination continued the
matter was to be referred to the Law Officers, who could apply for an injunction from the court. It was made clear that no criminal liability was
created under the Act.
The background against which the 1965 Act was passed included the Bristol Bus Boycott. In 1955 the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) in
Bristol had voted against having black and Asian workers at the Bristol Omnibus Company, which then operated a colour bar until 1963. The bar only came to an end as result of the Bristol Bus Boycott. One of the organisers Ealing LBC v Race Relations Board  of the boycott, Paul Stephenson, is reported to have said on its 50th anniversary: “Fifty years has taught me that racism never dies – it simply slumbers.”
In 2013 the modern successor to the TGWU (Unite) issued an apology for what had happened earlier.
Later the Race Relations Act was strengthened in 1968 and substantially extended in 1976. By now nationality was included as a prohibited ground of
discrimination. The scope of the Act included employment, education and goods and services. That Act extended the concept of discrimination to include indirect discrimination and not only direct discrimination. It created individual rights and a range of remedies, which could be enforced either in
the County Court or in what is now called the Employment Tribunal.
The Race Relations Act 1976 was perhaps one of the strongest pieces of legislation of its kind in the world and certainly in Europe. It long predated
legislation against racial discrimination in EU law, which did not come until the early part of this century.
However, the Act still did not cover discrimination by public authorities in the exercise of their public functions. Following the report by Sir William
MacPherson into the investigation by the Metropolitan Police of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, Parliament enacted the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. One of the main legislative responses to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report was to create a strengthened public sector equality duty, then in section 71 of the 1976 Act. The amended Act also now prohibited racial discrimination by public authorities in the performance of their public functions.
At around the same time the Human Rights Act 1998 came into full force, in October 2000. This gives effect in domestic law to the main rights in the
European Convention on Human Rights, including the right to equal treatment in the enjoyment of other Convention rights, which is set out in Article 14.
By this route we now have a system of law in which even primary legislation can be tested against the standards of the Convention and, in appropriate cases, a declaration of incompatibility can be issued by the higher courts. This is what happened in the so-called “Belmarsh” case, when the House of Lords held that Part 4 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 was incompatible with the Convention rights.9 This was in part because it discriminated on the ground of nationality, since the power given to the Secretary of State to authorise the detention of suspected international terrorists applied only to those who were foreign nationals.
As the Runnymede Trust knows better perhaps than any organisation in this country, it is one thing for the law to prohibit racial discrimination. It is
another for society to achieve equality. The social and economic data are well known.
In the last quarter of 2014 the unemployment rate for all people aged 16 plus in the UK was 5.6%. For people of black ethnic background it was 13.9%.
Although for all ethnic groups the unemployment rate was higher among young people aged 16-24, the youth unemployment rate was 16% for white people; 25% for people of Asian ethnic background; and 32% for people of black ethnic background.
The 2011 census figures show that, in England and Wales, the percentage of the population describing themselves as Asian or Asian British was 5.87%.
The percentage describing themselves as Black or Black British was just 2.81%. Contrast that with the figures for the prison population.
The prison population, according to research by the Prison Reform Trust, contains a large proportion of prisoners from a minority ethnic background.
10% of the prison population are black and 6% are Asian. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, there is now a greater disproportionality in the number of black people in prison in the UK than in the United States.
Then consider police powers to stop and search. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, if you are a black person you are at least six
times as likely to be stopped and searched by the police in England and Wales as a white person. If you are Asian, you are around twice as likely to be
stopped and searched. 10 Research briefing on unemployment by ethnic background to be found on the UK Parliament website.
What about those who exercise the power of the state on behalf of the public? Although there had been members of Parliament from minority ethnic backgrounds historically going back to the 19th century, in the postwar period they only started to become elected to Parliament in 1987, when four MPs
were elected. That represented 0.6% of the membership of the House of Commons. That figure has now increased to 42 MPs in the House of Commons elected in May this year, representing 6.6%.
When it comes to judicial appointments, the picture is mixed. The proportion of BAME judges at lower levels of the judiciary and amongst fee paid judges,
for example Deputy District Judges and Tribunal Members, is much closer to the proportion of BAME communities in the population generally than it is at
more senior levels of the judiciary.
Does any of this matter? On one level not, because judges put aside their backgrounds and opinions when they come to a case, and decide it on the facts
and the law. Yet on another level, according to a report in 2012 by Alan Paterson and Chris Paterson, it does matter, particularly in the perception society has of its judges.11 The authors of that report suggest that “the concept that the institutional legitimacy of the judiciary as a branch of government is in some way linked to a reflection of the society it serves.” They suggest that the judiciary from the High Court and above might loosely be described as the “‘politically significant judiciary’ – the judges involved in the day to day review of government decision-making.”12 That is a reference to the important role played by judicial review of administrative action, although that role is now increasingly played by the Upper Tribunal and not only the High Court. It is also worth noting in this context that the power to make a declaration of incompatibility under section 4 of the Human Rights Act is confined to the High Court and above.
Even at the time when I started at the Bar in 1989, it was in theory possible for barristers’ chambers and their clerks to discriminate, both in the
recruitment of members of chambers and in the allocation of work. This is because the Race Relations Act at that time did not extend to barristers. This
was changed by the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990.
Changing the law does not make society automatically fair and does not make all parts of life more diverse. That has more to do with structural features of our society, in particular social and economic factors. The prohibition of racial discrimination does not necessarily lead to diversity in all parts of life, for example in certain professions and occupations. Change can appear to be very slow.
I would suggest that, to understand the nature of our society today, it can be important to recall what was happening 20 years ago or more. Many of the
people appointed to judicial office today, in particular at the more senior levels, were born more than half a century ago. They were at school in the
1960s and 70s, when our education system was completely different from what it is now. For example, hardly anyone today would know what a “direct grant” school was. Yet that is the kind of school I attended 40 years ago.
Many of those who are judges now, like me, were appointed to various offices such as Junior Counsel to the Crown when we were in practice. In 1998 the
Attorney General introduced the modern system for such appointments, in which there is an annual open competition in which every advocate can make an application.
When it comes to judicial appointments themselves the Judicial Appointments Commission was created by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. It started to run competitions for the High Court bench in 2007. Again all such appointments are made on merit.
So I would suggest that what we are doing as a society now will have an impact on shaping the nature and character of our society for decades to
come. For example the person who will be Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales in another 50 years time is probably a student now. It is unlikely that
we can change things radically overnight. However, what we can do as a society is to take constructive steps now which will have a beneficial effect in
years and decades to come in the future.
It is well-known that the Race Relations Act was never intended to have exclusively legal effect. Such legislation has a symbolic impact and is
designed to educate the public in certain fundamental values of our society. The message was clearly sent out by Parliament that racial discrimination
would not be countenanced in this country and that the principle of equality is fundamental to our society.
As will become apparent at this conference, the Race Relations Act 1965 was a weak and imperfect piece of legislation. Nevertheless, as is often the case in history, what is important about the 1965 Act is that it was the first step on an important journey. That journey has not yet finished. Please note that speeches published on this website reflect the individual judicial office‐holder’s personal views, unless otherwise stated. If you have any queries please contact the Judicial Office Communications Team.