The Magna Carta: Not quite what we think it is

Magna Carta

If distinguished individuals such as Justice Judith Prakash, a judge in Singapore’s Supreme Court, and Mr Scott Wightman, the British High Commissioner to Singapore, don’t know much about the Magna Carta beyond its extremely tenuous links to Robin Hood, the rest of us can probably be forgiven for our ignorance.

The Magna Carta has long had a reputation as a seminal document, a treaty signed by King John (yes, that King John from the Robin Hood stories) that paved the way for democracy and justice for all. Yet the Magna Carta of the public imagination doesn’t quite match the reality.

The Magna Carta’s Journey to Singapore: History and the Rule of Law was the first of two events this week that sought to shed some light on the history and significance of the Great Charter. Held at NUS Law, the event featured Professor Simon Chesterman (dean of NUS Law), Dr Kevin Tan and Assistant Professor Jack Lee, and was moderated by Justice Prakash.

Dr Tan kicked off the session by providing the historical context of the Magna Carta. Originally known simply as the Charter, it was put to King John in 1215 after a bloody civil war waged between him and barons sick of having to raise taxes for the monarch’s disastrous wars. 63 clauses were included in the somewhat hastily drafted peace treaty, including the protection of the rights of the church, the protection of the barons from imprisonment without trial and the restriction of the king’s right to arbitrarily tax the barons. Although the document is now seen as the birth of democracy, the original text did not mention the rights of the common people at all.

Professor Chesterman brought up the role of Edward Coke, a lawyer who was in Parliament about 400 years since King John affixed his seal to the first Charter. Coke used the Magna Carta to argue for the restriction of the monarch’s powers. His campaign eventually led to the English Bill of Rights in 1689, and also “reinvented” the Magna Carta as a symbol of justice and democratic governance.

As for Singapore, the Magna Carta was included in our statutes since English law was allowed into the colony through the Charter of Justice in 1826, and it was not until Parliament passed the Application of English Law Act in 1993 that it ceased to be applicable as a matter of statute. However, judges in Singapore’s courts have continued to cite the Magna Carta in some of their decisions, with Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon suggesting that Article 9 of our Constitution – which states that “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty save in accordance with law” – had its roots in the Great Charter.

That said, the historic document is now largely a matter of interest for scholars of legal history, with much less relevance to the current practice of law. Dr Tan even admitted that the actual Magna Carta itself – with the bulk of its 63 clauses now obsolete – actually sets a poor precedent in law. Yet the understanding of the history of the Magna Carta and its evolution into a symbol of fairness and justice can help us understand our concept of rule of law in Singapore today, said Professor Chesterman.

“Myths rarely have power because of their ties to the world as it is. Myths have power because of their ties to how we want the world to be,” he said during his presentation.

One of the four surviving copies of the 1217 Magna Carta will be on display at Singapore’s Supreme Court from 19 – 23 November, accompanied by the sole surviving copy of the King’s Writ. The exhibition is free.

The British High Commission is also organising the #MagnaCarta competition, inviting people to suggest what they would put into their own version of a Great Charter. Entries can be both fun or serious, and participants stand to win a pair of tickets to Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

To apply, e-mail the rules for your own Great Charter to [email protected].