The Magna Carta

This month as we approach the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, we have the second in a series of articles on civil liberty and our justice system. We will start with an explanation of what the Magna Carta is and then consider a current example of the charter principles in effect, namely the changes to bailiff powers brought into force in April. 

The Magna Carta

Magna Carta is famous as a symbol of justice, fairness and human rights. For centuries it has inspired and encouraged the freedom movement and constitutional reform not only in this country but around the world. However, when it was issued by King John in June 1215, its future importance was not considered.

‘Magna Carta’ simply means ‘great charter’. A charter is a legal document issued by the king or queen which guarantees certain rights. This charter has over 60 clauses, including the right to a fair trial. Of the 60 clauses, only three are still law. One defends the freedom and rights of the English church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, but the third is the most famous:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.

This statement of principle is buried deep in Magna Carta, but it has allowed succeeding generations to reinterpret it for their own purposes. In the fourteenth century, Parliament saw it as guaranteeing trial by jury. Sir Edward Coke, the most famous lawyer and judge of his time, interpreted the charter as a declaration of individual liberty. You can also see the charter’s influence in the American Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Charter Today

It can be difficult to see the connection between an 800-year-old statement on justice and our modern legal system, but the principles are still being followed in our current laws. Although not in the same league as the American Bill of Rights, consider the recent change to the law regulating bailiffs. 

Bailiffs have been part of debt law in England and Wales for over a thousand years. In fact the oldest law that’s still on the books in England, the 1267 Statute of Marlborough, concerns stopping bailiffs taking too much property (evidence of abuse of power even before the 800-year-old charter!). The government has revised the law on bailiffs, and the new rules limiting their powers came into force from 6 April of this year. The problem with bailiffs has often been people knowing what rights the bailiffs have opposed to an individual’s ‘personal rights and freedoms’. In the past a small number of bailiffs have overstepped their jurisdiction and have abused their power. Clearly the courts have always had a role in balancing these competing rights. The new rules designed to make this balancing act easier include: 

•    Bailiffs no longer being allowed to enter homes where there are only children present;
•    Bailiffs not visiting debtors’ homes late at night – they will be permitted to visit only between the hours of 6am and 9pm;
•    Stopping the removal of essential domestic items such as fridges, cookers and washing machines; 
•    Making the bailiffs wait seven days before selling collected goods; and
•    Stopping bailiffs from forcing entry to a property without first proving that such reasonable force is necessary.

Justice Minister Helen Grant said about the changes:

“There are some very good, reputable bailiffs around, but we know there is bad practice out there that needs to be dealt with. For too long bailiffs have gone unregulated, allowing a small minority to give the industry a bad name. These laws will help to clean up the industry and ensure bailiffs play by the rules. They will also make sure businesses and public bodies can collect their debts fairly.”

Even though she did not use the word ‘justice’, this could arguably be the intention behind the changes in the law. Whether it is liberty of a person or their property, no one is entitled to ignore the rule of law and this is the point of the Magna Carta. In 1215 it was the powers of the crown that needed to be reined in. In today’s society it may be the power of the crown, the government or an individual that needs to be restrained by the courts. By ensuring that individuals, companies and the government are all subject to the law of the land, an individual’s right to freedom is protected. 

If this article has tweaked your interest, then I would strongly encourage you to visit the Magna Carta 800th anniversary website: There are already events happening in both the UK and the USA to celebrate, and you can expect to hear more about this foundation stone of liberty over the next year.