Magna Carta and the Law

Magna Carta is such a fellow, that he will have no sovereign
E. Coke, House of Commons, 1628


In Magna Carta King John agreed to a series of regulations of his rights under feudal custom, largely as they affected large landholders of Britain. In 1215 Magna Carta did not offer the protection of law to all the king’s subjects, but within a few years it was being quoted in individual actions in courts and in petitions, as a defence of the rights of all against tyranny.

The reiteration of Magna Carta in the statute books indicates its significance in the popular mind as law which guarded against unjust power. Here was a written record of the oaths of kings, which did not rely on the hearsay of spoken words long gone, that could be kept and reaffirmed in protection against the assumption of arbitrary powers.


Magna Carta came to be seen as a law of laws, and a measure of the legality of all other laws. The king’s promise, in the most famous provisions, of access to justice, was interpreted in the seventeenth century as a fundamental protection of the personal liberties of all subjects, inherent and immutable.

Echoes of Magna Carta can be seen in the US Bill of Rights within the American Constitution.

No freeman is to be taken or imprisoned or disseised of his free tenement or of his liberties or free customs, or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go against such a man or send against him save by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

Magna Carta, chapter 29, 1297 

No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law …

Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America

Its influence can also be discerned in modern documents such as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


As a statute of the realm from 1297, Magna Carta officially became part of British law, to be referred to, interpreted and quoted in the courts and in parliaments of Britain and of countries that have adopted British law, including Australia.

Confirmation of Magna Carta, fifteenth century statute book. © The British Library Board, Lansdowne 464, f.32

Confirmation of Magna Carta, fifteenth century statute book. © The British Library Board, Lansdowne 464, f.32

Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory legislated to take in selected imperial legislation, including chapter 29 of the Magna Carta. In Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, most chapters are in force.

Magna Carta is much quoted by Australians when they are representing themselves in court cases.

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