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Magna Carta: 'Did she die in vain?'

Is ignorance over the magna carta being exploited by those who want to repeal the human rights act

Sean is a partner in the human rights department at Leigh Day.  He acts for individuals and campaign groups on a wide range of human rights issues including prisoner rights, environmental, discrimination and information law matters.
Whilst there have rightly been celebrations on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, ignorance over what it stands for, and what freedoms it did actually provide, are being exploited by those with an axe to grind against our hard fought for modern day freedoms.

The Magna Carta was an important step in curbing the power of the King and establishing the rule of law.

However, the anniversary is being used to once again attack the Human Rights Act, some even going far as to suggest that the Magna Carta provided adequate human rights protections and that subsequent developments over the last 800 years, culminating in the HRA, were unnecessary and regressive measures foisted upon an unsuspecting nation by an avaricious “human rights industry”.

In fact, most people were not “free men” in 1215 but unfree peasantry. The rights as set out in the Magna Carta:

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled. Nor will we proceed with force against him. Except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice."

...simply didn’t apply to them. Rather very few clauses in Magna Carta dealt directly with “villeins” — the unfree peasants who formed most of the population.

They were bound to their lord in a restrictive tie which they were not free to break. They had to spend some of their time cultivating their lord’s land without pay; they were not free to leave their manor; they did not own their goods and possessions; and they owed their lord numerous customary payments.

Villeins also fell under the jurisdiction of their lord’s manorial court, without access to the protection of the royal courts.

The Magna Carta was simply the beginning of a long and continuing journey in relation to respect for human rights.

It is particularly dispiriting that the Prime Minister has used this anniversary to disparage the importance of the Human Rights Act.

The Act ensures that it isn’t just those born into wealth and power who have the right to a fair trial and justice but that everyone, by dint of being human, has these rights.

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