Magna Carta – did she really die in vain…
19 June 2015 by Tony Fisher
Tony Hancock (1924-68) one of television’s best loved comedians demanded of his fellow jurors in the immortal lines spoken in 1959 ‘Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”
At the end of the final week of celebrations of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta perhaps it is time to reflect on where we currently stand in relation to its heritage. As the journalist Joshua Rozenberg has confirmed, today Magna Carta has become a world-class brand, representing human rights, democracy and free speech, despite the fact that the original document makes no mention of these principles. It has an important place in modern legal and popular culture which has become heightened during the course of the celebrations. It has been quoted as a source of inspiration by a diverse range of iconic historic figures, from the authors of the American Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the authors of the Nepali constitution in more modern times. Nelson Mandela, put on trial for his life in 1964, declared from the dock his admiration for western democracy, stating that Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights and the Bill of Rights were “held in veneration by democrats’ worldwide.”
In the UK many of our own judges have, over the last 12 months, confirmed that whatever is in the written text, Magna Carta has come down to us through the centuries as the most important single document in the development of constitutional and legal freedom and adherence to the rule of law in the common law world. Its significance lies not only in what it actually said, but perhaps to an even greater extent in what later generations claimed and believed it had said. Lord Bingham once said that “sometimes the myth is more important than the actuality.”
It is perhaps ironic then that this focus on the legacy of Magna Carta has come at a time when many worry that the rights and remedies which Magna Carta helped to develop have become less and less available to ordinary people. Over the last few years there have been huge, mainly unnoticed, changes to the scope of legal aid which mean that the poorest and weakest in our society can no longer obtain representation in relation to some of the most complex areas of the law concerning their own social welfare, or in relation to problems that have arisen in the context of their own families.
Further cuts in criminal legal aid which will be implemented over the next year or so are likely to lead to many criminal practitioners having to withdraw from the representation of vulnerable clients to retrain in other areas of the law. Access to justice is being systematically withdrawn whilst at the same time one of the main remedies which historically has allowed citizens to hold the state to account (judicial review) has become ever more difficult to use. Court fees on the issue of proceedings to recover damages for civil wrongs and to recover legitimate debts have risen to the point where it is now up to 30 times more expensive to issue proceedings in London than it is in New York.
Maintenance of the Magna Carta heritage requires not only that the state provides remedies, but also that it provides ways in which they can be accessed. Let’s hope that ways can be found to secure this access that can be maintained. If it can’t – she may well have died in vain.