Queensland Law Society

1215 and all that … Magna Carta 800 years on

Why should we care about an agreement signed between an English King and fractious nobles 800 years ago?

Everyone is subject to the law

Sometimes called the “foundation of liberty,” [1] Magna Carta or “the Great Charter” of 1215 was the first acknowledgement[2] that the executive arm of the Government (which, back then, meant King John & his ministers) must exercise powers subject to the law.

In 2015 that idea is no less important. “Separation of powers” – meaning laws passed by parliament and then applied impartially by independent Judge and Jury rather than at the whim of the government of the day is still the cornerstone of our fundamental rights and freedoms.

Lawyers understand that it is all too easy for these basic freedoms to quietly slip away. 

Defending fundamental rights

“Innocent before proven guilty”, “no imprisonment without trial”, “recognition of property” – these fundamental liberties seem unquestionable in Australia. But our profession knows that they are fragile. That is why the Queensland Law Society and equivalents around the country are quick to leap to the defence of these principles even at the price of unpopularity. 

Freedoms can be inconvenient. They can frustrate law enforcement and those seeking to defend us from enemies. They also lie at the heart of what those defenders are seeking to preserve.

The  view offered by history reminds us that much of what makes up modern Australian freedom has deep roots. In 2015 on the anniversary of Magna Carta’s signing, Queensland’s solicitors remember the start of a journey of 800 years and remain committed to those principles.

No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseized of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land.

Magna Carta – Chapter 29 (1297)

David Bowles
Ethics Solicitor
Queensland Law Society


[1] The actual content is a little disappointing for those seeking a bill of rights, “habeas corpus” or the rights of the common man.  A great deal of water – and blood – had to flow into the river at Runnymede before the initial promise bore fruit.

[2] In post conquest England.