What is Magna Carta and what is its significance in English law?

The Magna Carta


This major piece of legislation was first enacted in 1215. King John was forced to accept it under threat of civil war. It was the earliest attempt to limit the powers of the monarch and define the extent of the rights and liberties of subjects. The Magna Carta required King John of England to proclaim certain rights (mainly of his barons), respect certain legal procedures, and accept that his will could be bound by the law. It explicitly protected certain rights of the King’s subjects, whether free or fettered — most notably the writ of habeas corpus, allowing appeal against unlawful imprisonment. Magna Carta was arguably the most significant early influence on the extensive historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law today in the English speaking world. Magna Carta influenced the development of the common law and many constitutional documents, including the United States Constitution. Magna Carta was the first document forced onto an English King by a group of his subjects (the barons) in an attempt to limit his powers by law and protect their privileges. It was preceded by the 1100 Charter of Liberties in which King Henry I voluntarily stated what his own powers were under the law. Magna Carta is normally understood to refer to a single document, that of 1215. Various amended versions of the Magna Carta appeared in subsequent years however, and it is the 1297 version which remains on the statute books of England and Wales.

In 1297, Magna Carta was re-enacted and it was confirmed by Edward I. The re-enacted version can be considered as a declaration of certain fundamental principles, such as :

  1. no one shall lose his life and liberty “except by lawful judgement of his equals and by the law of the land”
  2. the king should not sell, deny or delay justice
  3. punishment should be in relation to the seriousness of the crime

For modern times, the most enduring legacy of Magna Carta is considered to be the right of habeas corpus. In 1679, the Habeas Corpus Amendment Act was passed. The Habeas Corpus Act 1679 was passed by the Parliament of England during the reign of King Charles II to define and strengthen the ancient prerogative writ of habeas corpus whereby persons unlawfully detained can be ordered to be prosecuted before a court of law. Though amended, it remains on the statute book to this day. The Act contains provisions ensuring that persons imprisoned without legal cause, whether by the Crown or by private individuals should, on obtaining a writ of habeas corpus, have their detention examined by a judge within a set period of time.