Monthly Archives: June 2014

Magna Carta – is it such a great charter?

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has declared children must learn about Magna Carta, the 13th century deal between England’s barons and King John, which he considers “the foundation of all our laws and principles”. He knows this because he has read it in a 1905 children’s book of history, Our Island Story.

   In reality Magna Carta has little to offer the modern reader – not least because most of it has been repealed or else was suppressed almost as soon as it was issued. Here is what is left of it. So is there any point in studying it? Perhaps, but not for the Union Jack waving reasons that Cameron wants it taught – and certainly not because it demands “other people [than the king] should have rights” as he believes. Indeed, it was an attempt to protect the privileges of an elite, not the rights of “the people”.

   The background to Magna Carta was the various foolish wars prosecuted by the English kings – Richard the Lionheart’s Crusade in the Middle East against Islamic forces seeking to dismiss the Christian westerners from their tottering Levantine holdings and King John’s attempt to assert his rights over France. None of this came cheaply, so the issue underlying Magna Carta was: could taxes be levied by the king without the consent of “the people”?

   In the 12th and 13th centuries, of course, “the people” was the barons and clergy and a small number of freemen, and when the barons revolted against King John (who succeeded his brother Richard to the throne in 1199) they were revolting against both the excessive taxations, required as a result of John’s French war, and the centralised power of the state, the absolutism that had trampled over their feudal rights – the rights they had in the lands they held as fiefs of the king.

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Barkas case: Judicial anarchy on the village green

Was the Supreme Court right to overrule the leading village greens case of R (Beresford) v Sunderland City Council (2003) in its recent judgment in R (Barkas) v North Yorkshire County Council (2014; pdf)? There is a strong argument to suggest Lord Neuberger et al have overstepped the mark in declaring Beresford no longer good law – in a gross breach of the rules of judicial precedent on which our law relies. The result will be that it will be far more difficult from now on to have land designated as village greens, protecting it from development.

  The Supreme Court is supposed to accept earlier judgments of the same court, even if the current incumbents think they are wrong, unless there are very good reasons not to, such as a material change in circumstances or strong public interest. That allows for legal certainty, so people can act according to the known law, as examined and approved by the highest court in the land, rather than seek to rerun a similar case a few years later in the hope that the judicial dice might fall a different way. That is the principle that Neuberger et al have thrown to the four winds in disapproving Barkas.

   There are supposed to be limitations on the rare occasions when the Supreme Court can breach precedent and overrule itself. In particular the overruling must help to resolve the case before them. That was not so in Barkas. Lower courts and the Supreme Court itself had all resolved the case (rejecting the application to turn a piece of land in Whitby into a village green) by distinguishing it from Beresford – different facts, different law. There was no requirement to then go on to overrule Beresford – indeed the rule is that they should not go on to overrule the earlier case. But the Supreme Court Justices did so anyway.

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