It is a privilege to be standing here today as the Attorney General of England & Wales, speaking to colleagues from across the world gathered to celebrate 800 years since the sealing of Magna Carta, which happened a few miles up the Thames from this place.
We are here to celebrate the legal traditions that began with Magna Carta: fairness, judicial independence and the Rule of Law.
I don’t need to repeat what many have said at this Summit: the true importance today of Magna Carta is its iconic, even mythical value. Lord Denning described it as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.
What I do want to do today is to celebrate what this country has done to promote these values over the centuries; and what this government has done to promote these values over the last five years.
I am proud of this government’s record, when held up against the searching glare of the Rule of Law.
That is something I can talk about from a unique vantage point as Attorney General. I can speak to you with experience of having witnessed and been part of the operation of the Rule of Law in government.
The post of Attorney General must be one of very few which is almost as old as Magna Carta itself. Indeed, there is another anniversary to celebrate, as the first formal appointment recorded of a specially designated King’s Attorney was precisely seven hundred years ago, in the year 1315 – although there are records of individuals appointed to “sue the King’s pleas” as early as 1243, within living memory of Magna Carta. The title of Attorney General is first recorded in the fifteenth century, and yet still, all these centuries later, we are being told by independent observers that the Attorney General has an increasingly important role in relation to the Rule of Law in our constitutional arrangements. That is the view of the Constitution Committee of our House of Lords. In a real, practical sense, the Attorney General represents law at the heart of government.
One of my principal functions is to sit at the Cabinet table and advise the government on the law. The fact that the Attorney General has that seat demonstrates the status of law and legal considerations in our constitution. The Treasury Solicitor’s Department which I have responsibility for describes its purpose as follows: “We enable the government to operate effectively within the rule of law.” That sums it up.
Magna Carta and the Rule of Law
For those of us who play a part in protecting the Rule of Law, Magna Carta still resonates today.
It forms part of the foundation of our constitutional guarantees.
Look at Chapters 12 and 14, which prevented taxes being levied save with the agreement of an assembly that could give the representational consent of the kingdom.
For the first time, there was to be no taxation without representation.
And then, most famously, Chapter 39:
No free man is to be arrested or imprisoned or dispossessed of property or outlawed or exiled or in any way destroyed nor will we go against him nor will we send against him >save by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
This is the most famous “Chapter” on justice, and it still appears on the statute book. It embodies the twin principles that rulers are subject to law, and citizens are protected by law.
These are ideas on which we place great weight in this country. The Rule of Law is a central principle of our constitution, sitting alongside Parliamentary sovereignty. It is possibly more central to our constitution than ever. The Lord Chancellor has a special duty to uphold it, set out in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Our Courts refer to it in their judgments more than ever before. We are rightly proud of the fact that other states associate this country with the idea, and not just thanks to Magna Carta. The UK has a long history of promoting the rule of law overseas.
And as we heard from the International Development Secretary on Monday, the Rule of Law remains a concept of fundamental importance internationally. Few if any States would claim not to support it. It has been described as more widely embraced and regarded as of more fundamental importance than liberty and democracy. And it is used as a criterion by which States are judged by the rest of the international community. Freedom House uses the Rule of Law as one of its 10 political indicators in its yearly rankings.
The Rule of Law is also a key part of the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda to tackle the causes of poverty. As our Prime Minister put it in his speech to the General Assembly on 15 May 2013;
[The] golden thread that links open economies and open societies [is] fair and accountable institutions, equal economic and political opportunities for women, open and fair >rules to boost enterprise and growth.
A positive case
How, then, has the rule of law informed and shaped the UK’s modern practice?
There is a conception I have sometimes heard voiced that the Rule of Law is a straightjacket against which all governments – and this government in particular – have chafed.
Certainly it is no part of the Rule of Law to make the lives of governments easy. Law is a fetter on unconstrained government action. That is as it should be; government constrained by law is one of the great guiding principles of humanity.
But where you could portray that as a straightjacket, I see strict adherence to the Rule of Law as a badge of honour. It is not just something we reluctantly accept; it is something we champion at home and abroad.
Look at what we have managed to do in these last five years: the UK remains on course to be the fastest growing economy in the G7, with latest figures showing we have grown by more than 3 per cent this year. We have created 1,000 jobs for every day that this Government has been in office. We have delivered major reforms of the immigration system, welfare, the health service and the education system, and we have done so while reducing the deficit.
These reforms are sometimes the subject of vigorous policy debate within government as well as outside it – that, again, is as it should be. But what we do not countenance is any suggestion that these policies should be designed or implemented in a way that is inconsistent with our national or international legal obligations. It is an overarching and fundamental principle of this government that its policies must comply with the law; and that compliance with the law is a valuable policy objective in itself. Yes, Parliament has enacted many new policies and protections into law over the last five years. But that is how the government has effected change: through law, not in spite of it.
That is important in practice also. As many others have said in this summit, when you do business in the UK you know that it will be on the basis of tried and tested legal foundations. Foreign companies come to Britain, bringing with them jobs and investment, because we are a stable place to do business.
This ongoing commitment to the Rule of Law is a crucial precondition for the government’s long-term economic plan to create more jobs and reduce the deficit – a challenge many others in this room from around the world also face.
I’ve mentioned the most famous Chapter of Magna Carta. But other Chapters were designed to make procedures for civil litigation more accessible and to make the King’s criminal justice more available.
Much has been said about this government’s reforms of judicial review. I am in no doubt; access to judicial review is a crucial safeguard for the citizen and an indispensable guarantor of good government.
There are ways in which we have rightly looked to update the rules governing judicial review. It is an inescapable fact that modern governments are subject to challenge in the Courts more than ever in our history. I do not see reforms which are aimed at tackling unmeritorious challenges as undermining the rule of law. Allowing courts to focus instead on meritorious challenges seems to me entirely in accord with that principle.
The principles of Magna Carta have never been more relevant: the right to bring your grievance to Court, to appeal against an administrative decision, to challenge the legality of a policy which affects you directly.
Let me pause too on the role of the legal profession here. A British citizen accused of a crime has the right to be represented by an independent advocate, who owes a duty to justice as well as a duty to his or her client; an advocate who is trained, regulated, and bound by a professional code of ethics. All of these considerations will apply equally in our adversarial system to the advocate who is prosecuting. Those prosecutors too must follow a code of their own. They are independent of government, as are the regulators of the legal professions, as are our judges. All of these are guarantors of the fundamental right to have an independent court adjudicate on the issue before it.
And none of those ancient rights would be capable of being exercised without the legal profession to apply, enable and enforce them. We in that profession are proud of being driven by the Rule of Law and the public interest.
Let me turn finally to human rights.
Magna Carta was relied on by those fighting against the tyranny of absolute monarchy in England in the 17th century. It was carried across the Atlantic by the Pilgrims, and forms the bedrock of the civil liberties set out in the constitution of the United States of America.
In the 20th Century, the progenitor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt, called the Declaration “a Magna Carta for all humanity.” That statement is testament to the ambition of the framers of the Universal Declaration to prevent the horrors of the Second World War from happening again; and of the enduring rhetorical power of Magna Carta.
Today we face our own horrors. At home, the debate rages on the balance between liberty and security in the fight against terrorism, as we grapple with how to respond to the threat of unjustifiable and unprovoked attacks such as we have seen in Sydney, Paris and Brussels. We see these huge challenges boiled down to small but hugely significant decisions – even whether to stock a magazine, or not. Around the world, there remain too many examples of practices we would all hope could have been put behind us.
I am proud of this Government’s record on human rights.
It has brought forward the Modern Slavery Bill, seeking to protect some of the most vulnerable and exploited people in our society, and to punish those responsible for that exploitation.
It has fought to promote and protect human rights internationally. It is one of the leading members of the UN Human Rights Council, leading negotiations to set up international investigations into human rights abuses in Syria and elsewhere. It has transformed the fight against sexual violence in conflict, persuading over 150 states to agree for the first time that sexual violence should be recognized as a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions.
It has been leading the world on the business and human rights agenda: it was one of the first states to argue for the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights; and the first state in the world to implement them through a national action plan.
We can be proud of the inheritance that the European Convention of Human Rights owes to Magna Carta and of the British lawyers who drafted it after the war, including one of my predecessors as Attorney General.
This government has also led the way in trying to reform the European Court of Human Rights. To clear the backlog of cases and improve the selection of judges.
We are a country with a proud history of human rights and the rule of law, as the examples I have given show. Our Courts have not, I would argue, always been given the right margin of appreciation by the European Court. We have some way to go before the European Court understands that, in many areas, the UK is better placed to decide what’s right for its citizens and that some things are better decided by Parliament than by the court in Strasbourg.
But let me emphasise: these arguments are based on the Rule of Law, not in conflict with it. They acknowledge and build on the UK’s proud human rights tradition; they do not trample on it.
So in conclusion - I am proud to be celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and what it stands for in terms of the Rule of Law.
I am also proud of what this government has achieved in its time in office. It has had an ambitious programme of reform, all the more praiseworthy because of the backdrop of austerity and the economic legacy we were left.
The fact of the matter is this government has stood up for the Rule of Law and human rights, nationally and internationally. Quite rightly, it has not been afraid to seek reform where reform is needed, at home or abroad. Indeed the Magna Carta was not intended to collect dust for 800 years as the world carried on around it. But this country is a fierce defender of the law, and of the role of the legal profession, with its special duty to justice. That is in Britain’s DNA. And it is something we will continue to champion, time and again, across the world – I hope for at least another 800 years.