A constitutional instrument - Deepstash
Magna Carta in the modern age - The British Library

Magna Carta in the modern age - The British Library

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A constitutional instrument

Magna Carta is a constitutional instrument that stands with the Petition of Right 1628, the Bill of Rights 1689, the Act of Settlement 1701 and the Act of Union 1707.

It is the most important document in the development of constitutional and legal freedom and adherence to the rule of law in the common law world.

The Magna Carta is iconic

The Magna Carta is iconic

The Magna Carta has become a world-class brand representing human rights, democracy, and free speech.

But the original document does not mention any of these principles, not even in translation. Regardless of what the Magna Carta says, it is immediately recognised as the most important legal document in the common law world.

The modern legal interpretation of Magna Carta

Only three clauses of the statute remain law in England and Wales today.

  • Clause 1 states that 'the Church of England shall be free.'
  • Clause 9 promises that 'the City of London shall have all the old liberties and customs' it used to have.
  • Clause 29 is the best-known. 'No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or disseised of his freehold, or liberties, or free customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.'

The symbolism of Magna Carta

The British nation puts its trust in people rather than in paper and has never codified its constitution. The Magna Carta's place in the laws of England and Wales is mainly symbolic.

And yet, the symbolism crosses the political spectrum. Nelson Mandela expressed his admiration for it during the Rivonia trial of 1964. Churchill was advised that a copy of the original charter might secure the support of the United States in WWII.

Magna Carta's use is limited

Non-lawyers tend to invest in Magna Carta with more weight than it carries. Some seem to think that Magna Carta can be used as a restraint on the supremacy of Parliament, but it can not. The power of Parliament to legislate as it deems good dates from the Bill of Rights 1689.

Judges do not enforce Magna Carta today because its terms are too broad. It is still cited in the courts of the UK, but as little more than a historical flourish.

Magna Carta in the United States

Magna Carta is revered more in other lands than in the country of its birth. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. In turn, that led directly to the European Convention on Human Rights in 1953.

The Magna Carta has been cited in more than 900 federal and state courts in the United States. Between 1940 and 1990, the United States Supreme Court had done so in more than sixty cases.

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