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What is Magna Carta?

The Magna Carta is displayed in Salisbury, England February 27, 2015. REUTERS/Kieran Doherty

Magna Carta. Lawyers and judges continue to name drop it in court, but the document has been largely neutered in terms of any modern-day legal application.

So why does a medieval piece of parchment still matter more than 800 years later?

“All legal documents that flowed subsequent to 1215 derived their inspiration from the Magna Carta,” says Moin Yahya, vice dean of the law school at the University of Alberta.

He adds its impact borders on religious in that “all of modern-day legal apparatus stems spiritually from the Magna Carta.”

Historians credit Magna Carta — Great Charter in Latin — with being the first legal document to assert that all citizens are bound by the rule of law.  In the original thirteenth-century context, this meant that the king, or monarchy, was not above the law.

Back then King John of England was in danger of being overthrown by a bunch of rebel barons, who were appalled by his inhumane treatment of his subjects. A bloody confrontation was narrowly avoided when the king signed the initial Magna draft, limiting the monarchy’s power and protecting the barons from illegal imprisonment — habeus corpus — and excessive taxation.

It also established the concept of a trial by jury of one’s peers to settle disputes between the barons and the Crown. And attempted to stop the king from solidifying his power by banning the practice of forcing wealthy widowers to marry his confidants and give up their estates.

This would later become a key step in the battle for women’s rights.

“Magna Carta has been cited in Canadian court cases but there are rulings demonstrating that the literal text of the Great Charter is not enforceable in Canada,” concedes Toronto-based historian Dr. Carolyn Harris, the author of Magna Carta and its Gifts to Canada.

While direct links may not exist, sections of Canada’s Constitution are steeped in Magna.

“When Canada's constitution was repatriated in 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights of Freedoms included legal protections with precedents in Magna Carta such as mobility rights and fundamental justice,” says Harris.

Some of the Great Charter’s key principles, include:

  • Nobody is above the law: the basis of equal justice at all levels of society.
  • Habeas corpus: freedom from unlawful detention without cause or evidence.
  • Trial by jury: rules to settle disputes between barons and the Crown established trial by a jury of one’s peers.

“Everybody can identify why we have it in the first place: it’s meant to be a check on the power of the state,” says Yahya. “It reminds people that people can make a change; whether it was the barons back in 1215 or we the people today.”

Read more:

Magna Carta Canada

Magna Carta: an introduction