From Magna Carta to human rights: can the law set us free?

Sunday 18 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Cinema 3, Barbican Contemporary Controversies

This year marks the 800th anniversary of the sealing of one of the most famous documents in the world: Magna Carta. The ‘Great Charter’ of England is celebrated by many for arguably establishing several important legal principles, including the rule of law and the notion that everyone - including the king - is subject to the law. It also codified the right of habeas corpus, stating that no free person should be imprisoned without a lawful trial. The document has long been recognised for its importance in defining democracy and justice for all. In 1628, Parliamentarians cited Magna Carta in their challenge to Charles I’s authority, and it was the backbone of the case for American liberty in the 1770s. In the twentieth century, the Suffragettes appealed to Magna Carta in their bid for women’s suffrage. Tellingly, however, both sides of the current debate on human rights see themselves in the tradition of Magna Carta.

The Conservative Party won the general election with a manifesto commitment to replace the 1998 Human Rights Act (HRA) with a British Bill of Rights that would ‘restore common sense to the application of human rights in the UK’. This followed a number of controversial judgments from the European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, particularly with its rulings that called for prisoners to be enfranchised and made it difficult for the government to deport undesirables, such as Abu Qatada. But opponents of the HRA are not necessarily opposed to civil liberties per se. Some argue that British Bill of Rights would be a better guarantee of individual freedom, rooted in the common law tradition going back to Magna Carta, as opposed to the top-down version of human rights emanating from Strasbourg. Nevertheless, the human rights movement has put itself on a war-footing.  Shami Chakrabarti, director of the campaigning group Liberty, has described a British Bill of Rights as the ‘gravest threat to freedom in Britain since the Second World War’, and insists it is the HRA that best upholds the tradition of Magna Carta. 

So who is right? Are critics of the HRA, and of ‘human rights’ rhetoric more generally, right that it undermines democracy by empowering unelected judges? Or is scrapping the HRA just a way for the government to grab more power at the expense of the public’s rights? Is the contemporary idea of human rights the culmination of a struggle going back to Magna Carta or something altogether different?

Listen to the debate

Merris Amos
reader in human rights law, Queen Mary University of London

Saimo Chahal QC (hon)
partner; joint head, Public Law & Human Rights, Bindmans LLP

Justin Fisher
professor of political science and director of the Magna Carta Institute, Brunel University London

Jon Holbrook
barrister; writer on legal issues; regular contributor to spiked

Bruno Waterfield
Brussels correspondent, The Times; co-author, No Means No
Recommended readings
Magna Carta-800 years of freedom: A spiked debate

In this inspiring debate arranged by spiked and filmed by WORLDbytes volunteers with students from the University of Connecticut in London, an eminent panel of speakers explain how the gains of the Magna Carta are being undone. They suggest we need a new project for liberty and freedom from the state, not more rights and state protection.

WORLDbytes, 2015

The Lawyers Riding Roughshod over the Democracy

Lord Sumption is right: legal activism devalues the demos.

Jon Holbrook, spiked, 2 December 2013

The Limits of the Law

What kinds of social tasks can properly be assigned to judges and courts, as opposed to these other agencies of social control?

Lord Sumption, Supreme Court UK, 20 November 2013

Judicial Politics & the Separation of Powers

Stephen Sedley on the separation of powers

Sir Stephen Sedley, London Review of Books, 23 February 2012

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