This week sees the public exhibition in Hong Kong of Hereford Cathedral’s Magna Carta as part of a global tour to mark the 800th anniversary. The version on display in Hong Kong dates from 1217. It is one of only four surviving examples of the 1217 version; the first version to be called “Magna Carta” or Great Charter.
The first Magna Carta was sealed on 15 June 1215 by King John at Runnymede. King John and the barons met there to agree a deal to end the civil war. The text was re-negotiated on four occasions over the next decade; and almost all its clauses have since been repealed. So why is Magna Carta still relevant today?
First because of its content. Magna Carta has been described as the first general statement of rights. This is thanks to the so-called golden passage, one of three clauses that remain in force today:
No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseized, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.
The barons at Runnymede were concerned only for their own rights, not the rights for the common man or woman. But these words established a crucial principle: that no one was above the law, not even the king.
Second because Magna Carta is iconic. It enjoys the reputation of the most important legal document in the common law world. It has been invoked as a symbol of human rights and democracy. It is perhaps the most potent symbol of rule of law.
Rule of law guards against the arbitrary exercise of power. It ensures that people have confidence in decisions taken by any part of the judiciary or the legal system. It allows business to be confident in the environment in which they are working. Trade and commerce thrive when the rule of law thrives.
Magna Carta is a foundation of the common law systems practiced in Hong Kong, England and other jurisdictions. The common law offers consistency and flexibility backed by courts that carry a global guarantee of independence, impartiality and enforceability. The success of common law lies in distinguished and rich legal heritage.
But over the years, legislation has been adapted and improved to reflect changing circumstances. For economies to retain a competitive edge, governments and legislatures must respond to the social changes happening all around us: the continuing digital revolution, which poses new questions about intellectual property rights and cross-border law; the need to deal with the urgent challenge of climate change, which requires mutual action by states with a rules-based framework to support it; continually developing attitudes within our societies that change our conventions and norms over time and oblige us to look afresh at how we respect diversity, and what that means for the guarantee of equality before the law. These are some of the challenges facing Hong Kong and the UK. Magna Carta reminds us that we have a long tradition to draw on as we think about how law can help us to develop a twenty-first century response.
See for yourself how Magna Carta has stood the test of time literally and metaphorically at the exhibition in Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery from Wednesday 11 to Saturday 14 November.
(An edited version of this article appeared in South China Morning Post on 9 November 2015.)