Today is the Magna Carta’s 800th birthday! Nice of Durham to hold a party for it over the weekend.
Noble ideas and models of rectitude are in short supply these days. The UK’s democratic liberties, although increasingly precarious, are the envy of the world.
In essence, Magna Carta was a bulwark against tyranny. Equality and freedom have had a chequered history since its inception but the charter changed Britain forever; interpreted as a document for human rights, it set Britain on a road towards non-autocratic government.
A famous clause states that none shall be denied justice; another that no man should be arrested or imprisoned save by the lawful judgement of their equals or the law of the land.
We take this for granted but over the centuries such clauses have been used by Thomas Jefferson, Nelson Mandela and Eleanor Roosevelt to fight for rights and freedoms; brave people who endeavoured to ensure respect for the rule of law.
Britain signed up to, indeed helped write, the European Convention on Human Rights which came into effect in 1953. The Human Rights Act was passed by the Labour Government in 1998 as a way of incorporating the European Convention into UK law.
The HRA is a beautifully simple piece of legislation allowing ordinary people – soldiers, journalists, bereaved families, victims of domestic violence, slavery and rape, people abused in care homes and those seeking equality in the workplace – to hold the state to account.
Sadly, a political row over human rights rumbles in the background. Cameron proposes withdrawing from the Convention if parliament fails to secure the right to veto judgments from the European court of human rights. Repercussions for our barely united kingdom would be serious as the HRA underpins the Good Friday Agreement and the Scotland Act. Any move is to be delayed until after the EU referendum.
Cases inflaming discussion around the HRA include asylum seekers ordered back to their country by the British government which the European court then overturns.
This upsets Cameron but such cases are minimal; of the 1,997 British cases dealt with at the European court last year, the government lost only four. The vast majority of legislation protects you and me. To feel so undermined by a system that’s available to citizens when they feel wronged by the state smacks of paranoia.
Lord Falconer, the shadow justice secretary, warned leaving the convention would inflict “incredible damage” to Britain’s standing in the world.
Sir Brian Leveson, the judge famous for his report into press ethics, said he does not consider himself “crushed by the European jackboot” when it comes to applying the European convention of human rights in British courts.
The UK’s absence would be to the detriment of European citizens, particularly those with less scrupulous governments. Richard Goldstone, the South African judge who was a UN prosecutor at the international criminal tribunal, said it would enable autocratic leaders around the world to ask why they should be bound by international law if the great font of democracy, the UK, pulls out.
Europe is a force for social protection. We ought to be committed to reforming the European court from within, rather than withdrawing from it.
So too with the EU; a referendum looming and the country is critically divided over what we want our relationship with the EU to be. Our approach should be constructive, not constrictive. Britain, once famed for its open society, should baulk at any illiberal drift, at a tactic of divide and rule.
In its last term, the government severely reduced legal aid, attacked judicial review and extended the use of secret courts. The government announced last week it is going ahead with legal aid cuts for solicitors, arguing that the UK spends more on legal aid than any other EU nation - something we should be proud of.
The Law Society reacted with dismay, claiming 120 law firms were already suffering as a result of previous cuts and warned it would damage access to justice.
The Journal reported political parties in Newcastle have united to oppose the Government’s proposed repeal of the HRA, agreeing that fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the act are crucial for a fair, free and democratic society.
Human rights are about us (see www.rightsinfo.org) , not only about criminals and terrorists. Take a look.