Arguments to keep the Human Rights Act alive are sprinkled with quotes about the charter, while the government celebrates an antiquity

It seems Magna Carta has become as divisive a document in 2015 as it was when King John was presented with it by his rebellious barons on the banks of Runnymede 800 years ago.

Yet instead of arguments about what powers the crown should have – or if one of the enshrined ‘rights’ was to have ale served in a standard measure – lawyers and politicians have used the historic document as a propaganda tool in their war of words with each other over key issues affecting the legal profession and the rule of law.

For the last 12 months, lawyers have used the ‘Great Charter’ as a banner to fly against government plans to cut legal aid, both for members of the public that desperately need it, and for those practitioners whose livelihoods depend upon it.

The coalition government, by contrast, effectively hijacked the historic charter and rode on its coat tails during the promotion of Chris Grayling’s highly criticised Global Law Summit.

Most recently, however, both sides have invoked the spirit and significance of Magna Carta in the now Conservative majority government’s controversial plans to scrap the Human Rights Act.

Lawyers opposed to repeal of the embattled legislation have not missed a chance to sprinkle their quotes with Magna Carta soundbites.

As we finally reached the 800th anniversary of the signing of the historic charter – though there is still some debate as to whether or not we should consider 2015, 2025, or 2097 to be the celebratory date in question – the president of the Law Society issued his latest rallying cry to the profession.

‘Magna Carta is the foundation that supports the fundamental civil liberties enjoyed by democratic countries across the world. Many see the ‘Great Charter’ as the starting point for human rights, and the most important document in the protection of the people from the powers of government.

‘The Magna Carta 800th Committee has described the historic document as “the most valuable export of Great Britain to the rest of the world”. Indeed, because of Magna Carta, the world looks to Britain as the forerunner of human rights, and the supremacy of the rule of law in democracy.

‘Today is also an opportunity to restate our position in support of the rights and principles enshrined in the Human Rights Act. We are committed to defending the act, and will be closely monitoring any proposals and invitations for consultation from the government,’ said Andrew Caplen.

Likewise, the government has recognised the importance of Magna Carta as a symbol of British legal ingenuity and used the charter to enhance its own arguments for a new ‘British Bill of Rights’.

In a speech at Runnymede to celebrate the signing of the charter, David Cameron praised the influence that Magna Carta has had across the globe, but couldn’t help but take a politically motivated swipe at the ‘distortion’ of human rights.

‘For centuries, Magna Carta has been quoted to help promote human rights and alleviate suffering all around the world. But here in Britain ironically, the place where those ideas were first set out, the good name of human rights has sometimes been distorted and devalued.

‘It falls to us in this generation to restore the reputation of those rights – and their critical underpinning of our legal system,’ said the prime minister, who just three years ago showed his ignorance of Magna Carta on US television.

And as David Allen Green blogged yesterday: ‘It is safe for the government to want you to celebrate Magna Carta, which you cannot rely on in court, whilst it – for example – seeks to repeal the Human Rights Act, which you can.’

Another argument frequently trotted out by those who belittle the Human Rights Act is that human rights existed in the UK long before Labour’s ‘dreaded’ list of European articles received royal assent at the end of the 20th century.

Writing in the Spectator magazine in May, the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan asked: ‘To what problem was the 1998 Human Rights Act supposed to be a solution? Were British citizens being routinely expropriated, or interned in camps, or forcibly transferred to remote exile? In truth, there was no crisis in civil freedoms; but there was a crisis in democratic legitimacy, which Tony Blair’s legislation exacerbated.’

Of course, the truth is a little more nuanced than that and, while Magna Carta may not have created human rights – as this infographic from rightsinfo.org shows – it can be seen as the starting point in the development of the important legal safeguards that were to come, both in UK and across the world.

The tub-thumping over Magna Carta will likely continue for the foreseeable future by both sides, yet it remains to be seen whether either argument resonates with the public, or with those MPs yet to decide how they will vote when the new Lord Chancellor Michael Gove finally decides to put his plans for human rights to parliament.

Still, with the condemnation in some parts of the press of Cameron’s speech yesterday, perhaps the lawyers have won this latest round in the Magna Carta propaganda war.

This blog post was first published in Solicitors Journal on 15 May 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission

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