June 15, 2015 represented the 800th anniversary of England’s King John agreeing to the Magna Carta at Runnymede on an island in the Thames, Surrey in 1215. This most revered piece of historic jurisprudence excites many students of law and politics, although its real impact in the immediate aftermath of its signing is somewhat debated.
Yesterday’s New York Times has an interesting comment on that.
Nevertheless Magna Carta is held as perhaps the most significantly influential statement ever seeking to resolve or at least manage the fundamental tension between those who possess legal power over people and those who demand safeguards against arbitrary exercise of that power.
(Image: Courtesy www.telegraph.co.uk)
The long arm of the law
The Magna Carta itself is a relatively simple document of constrained context. After all its beneficiaries were not the common people of the time but a selection of privileged nobles looking after their own interests.
However like the source of many legacies that persevere through the ages, it was an idea and as Victor Hugo famously said “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” Of course the injustice of the justice system and the helplessness of those under the law was the great theme of Hugo’s Les Miserables.
(Victor Hugo image: courtesy en.wikiquote.com)
In this case it was the idea that the Law should rule, not the whim of any individual and nobody, even the King, should be above the law.
In the eight hundred years since the ink dried on that parchment the volume of laws and statutes dedicated to preserving the rights of individuals and groups from the capricious actions of governments and autocrats has burgeoned. At the same time the desire of those seeking to avoid those constraints has also created an industry around finding the loop-holes in those laws.
Democratic government and Magna Carta inspired legal systems are not necessarily inseparable. There are numerous countries in the world who boast some kind of democratic system of electing governments but whose legal systems provide little protection to individuals from inequitable processes of prosecution, conviction and sentencing.
Magna Carta in the workplace
Do the principles of Magna Carta translate to business organisations and workplaces? In many ways they do.
The key principles of Magna Carta revolve around an undertaking by the person with power to decide another’s fate, not to exercise that power without fairness, justice, impartiality and equity. For organisations that means fair dealing with employees, customers, stakeholders of any kind or even the general community should they have a grievance with the organisation.
Many public sector organisations are required by their governing legislation to adopt complaints management procedures or grievance handling procedures. Typically these are framed to ensure due process and natural justice is accorded to the aggrieved party.
Notwithstanding these rules offended parties often still need to resort to a further course of appeal and processes provide for various referees, umpires, tribunals and Ombudsmen to provide that additional measure of justice.
Therefore that ancient parchment has arguably sown the seeds of a mighty harvest in human rights.
Interesting facts about Magna Carta’s content.
Like many legal documents, the devil and many interesting facts are only discernible in the detail. Apart from its salient features like providing the grounding for Trial by Jury some of the Great Charter’s provisions give an insight into the social and financial justice issues of the day. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 June 2015 by the newspaper’s Europe correspondent Nick Miller canvasses some of these, such as:
- The document is about 4,000 words long and written in Latin. Technically King John never “signed” it as is was executed by the application of the King’s “seal”.
- It had a taxation focus and stated that there would be no taxation by the Crown unless the nobles agreed.
- It protected widows (at least those of the aristocracy) by ensuring their inheritance was protected and preserved them from being compelled to remarry if they didn’t want to.
- It gave security to commerce by establishing uniform weights and measures across the realm.
(The Queen’s barge for the celebrations. Image: Courtesy www.ascotmatters.co.uk)
According to Julian Harrison, historian at the British Library in London, the celebrations are warranted. “Magna Carta has influenced generations around the world and across the centuries. It was used by Thomas Jefferson when he established the Declaration of Independence and quoted by Nelson Mandela at his trial in 1964.”
To that extent then, Magna Carter rules!