OPINION: Why Is Magna Carta Relevant To Fiji Today?

Professor Richard Herr is Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University.  The FNU acknowledges the support of the Fiji Sun and that of the Embassy of
15 Jun 2015 12:05
OPINION: Why Is Magna Carta Relevant To Fiji Today?

Professor Richard Herr is Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University.  The FNU acknowledges the support of the Fiji Sun and that of the Embassy of Japan.

Welcome back to Parliament 101. Regular readers will know that the history and development of parliaments holds a special fascination for Parliament 101.

You will not be surprised to read that today we join the rest of the parliamentary world in celebrating a special historical event – the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta.

What may surprise you is the suggestion that something that happened 800 years ago in England has any relevance to Fiji today.

To explain the very direct connection that exists between then and now for a modern democracy half-a-world away, let’s start at the beginning.

Have you ever seen a movie or heard a story about Robin Hood? If so, you will know that the real villain is not the outlaw Robin Hood but the evil Prince John.

Well, yes, the Sheriff of Nottingham was also a very bad guy but he was only acting for the greedy and treacherous Prince John who was abusing his power as regent (acting king) while good King Richard the Lionheart was away on the Crusades.

Robin Hood may not have been an actual person (we just do not know for sure) but Prince John was real and in 1199 he did become king of England when his brother Richard died.

King John continued to abuse his powers by increasing taxes and illegally seizing the lands that belonged to the barons (the English versions of high chiefs) so the barons rebelled against his rule.

The resulting war went so badly that King John agreed to negotiate a peace with the rebellious barons rather than try to defeat them in battle.

Because he had already been kicked out of London, King John had to discuss the barons’ terms for peace in a meadow called Runnymede near Windsor Castle.

The Archbishop of Canterbury helped to draw up the peace settlement in a document that came to be called Magna Carta, which translates as “the Great Charter” from the Latin in which it was written.

The Magna Carta was not especially successful as a peace treaty between King John and the barons. Both sides violated its terms not long afterwards and the Pope annulled it.

Nor is it important for how much of it is still in force in England today. Only four of the original 63 clauses in the original are still regarded as law in England today.

However, what has survived is the historical endorsement of some of the key principles expressed in Magna Carta.

Indeed, even at the time, the document was regarded as so important that, with slight amendments, it was reissued at least four times over the next 80 years.

King John’s son, who was only nine years old when he was crowned King Henry III, had to reissue an amended Magna Carta in 1216 and then again in 1217 to get the barons’ support and to stop a French invasion.

Nearly a decade later, Henry III reissued Magna Carta a third time to obtain the taxes he needed to fight another war.

Then, in 1297, King Edward I reaffirmed Magna Carta for a fourth time to help secure support for his kingship.

Edward I actually elevated the status of Magna Carta for all time by giving it both legal and constitutional effect when he reissued his slimmer, amended version as the law of the land.

He decreed that his courts should adhere to it in rendering judgments and that any judgment contrary to Magna Carta would be overturned as invalid.

Okay, it had some importance back then but what makes Magna Carta important today – 800 years later?

If you were able to read the original document you would be confused by both the language and the strange issues that the barons thought were important.

However, two of the original 63 clauses would not strike you as unusual at all (well, except for the wording, perhaps).

It said; “no free man shall be imprisoned or deprived of his lands except by judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.”

You can look at the Bill of Rights in the Constitution of Fiji and find several articles embodying the principles of a presumption of innocence and right to trial by jury.

The next clause in Magna Carta will look even more familiar since it stated that, “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

Article 1(1)(g) of the 2013 Constitution says that an accused person has a right to a trial that should “begin and conclude without unreasonable delay”.

While these legal principles are important in themselves as foundations for our modern justice system, they would not have survived if they had not been embedded in some broader principles that changed English politics.

Perhaps the most critical principle was that no one – not even the king – was above the law. Only 30 years after Magna Carta a famous English lawyer was able to write, ‘in England the king is below God and below the law’.

Magna Carta did not establish this principle alone, of course.   You can see this in the number of times after 1215 that the barons had to insist that new kings had to recommit to Magna Carta.

It is important to note, however, that this principle was not just dependent on the power of the barons’ armies at Runnymede although that certainly helped to get King John’s attention.

In the longer term, it was the need for taxes that forced later kings – Henry III and Edward I – to agree to the terms of Magna Carta.

You might recall that this is where modern parliaments get their power over the Executive arm of government. It all started when Magna Carta forced the king to recognise that he could not demand taxes but had to ask for them.

Moreover, to ask for taxes, the English kings had to have an assembly of some sort that could give this agreement.

There were assemblies called “great councils” composed mainly of the noblemen and senior church officials who owed their loyalty and service to the king, which met when the king wanted.

Magna Carta helped to change their membership and significance by linking them to taxes.

These great councils were expanded to include representatives from the counties and towns to allow free men to give their consent to be taxed. By 1236 the great councils began to be called “parliaments”.

It would be wrong to say that these democratic values in Fiji owe their modern existence to an 800-year old document in England.

But the fact is that Magna Carta did change English law and politics in ways that were restated and reaffirmed over succeeding centuries allowing for renewal and adaptation.

These changes were exported and modified as English legal and constitutional principles followed the Union Jack around the world.

It is true also that important democratic principles such as limited government, the rule of law and equality before the law did not spring in their modern form from Magna Carta.

But the idea of Magna Carta served as an ideal and an inspiration for the rule of law that has spanned the centuries.

This ideal was reaffirmed in the English Bill of Rights of 1688, the American Bill of Rights in 1791 and even in the Fijian Bill of Rights of 2013.

Response to Reader’s Question

Parliament 101 has decided to respond this week to two historical questions that kept appearing in the research we did on Magna Carta.

One question concerned why we say that the Magna Carta was “sealed” 800 years ago. Didn’t King John sign it the way some old paintings show?   The reality is that King John did not sign the Great Charter but had his royal seal fixed on it to show that it had received his authority. Indeed his officials put the royal seal on a large number of copies of Magna Carta so that the whole country would know what had been agreed at Runnymede. So, he did not sign it? Well, in the meaning of the day, he signed the document when he fixed his seal on it. It was common to use signed and sealed as meaning the same thing for kings at that time.

The second wondered if today, June 15, is the right day to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. Again, the answer here is both “yes” and “no”. The Magna Carta was sealed on June 15, 1215 but this was when dates were calculated on the old Julian calendar. Pope Gregory XIII centuries later commissioned a new calendar because the year’s seasons were no longer in line with the church calendar. As a result of a new way of calculating days in a year, a number of days had to be added to his new calendar. The Gregorian calendar change occurred on Thursday midnight of October 4, 1582 so that Friday the next day was the 15th of October. Counting backwards to 1215 under the Gregorian system, the 15th of June would be the 22nd of June in our modern calendar. However, nobody really does this with historical dates so we stick with the 15th of June as Magna Carta Day (unless you want to celebrate it twice!)




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