The Rights We Won At Runnymede: An Argument for the Repeal of Magna Carta

Author: Heesterman, Katja

Date: 2015

Type: Scholarly text

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Victoria University of Wellington


Much has been written about Magna Carta, particularly given its recent 800th birthday. Yet few are prepared to speak against this ancient document for fear that the rule of law, liberty, and even democracy might crumble if Magna Carta no longer stands. This paper argues that Magna Carta should be repealed. First, by studying both Magna Carta’s history and the relevant New Zealand case law, this paper establishes that Magna Carta no longer has any discernible practical use. Though it once represented rights against the monarch, it is now out of date, predominantly misused and is therefore obsolete. Building upon this conclusion the paper argues that little of what Magna Carta supposedly stands for can in fact be justified by legitimate statutory interpretation approaches. Even a generous, purposive approach is not enough to transform Magna Carta from a feudal document signed to end a civil war into a sure guarantee of rights and principles in modern New Zealand. Furthermore, Magna Carta does not live up to the rule of law it supposedly epitomises. It is an unnecessary, overly detailed and inaccessible piece of legislation. Finally, it is argued that New Zealand’s constitutional framework would be better off without Magna Carta. New Zealand’s ability to provide effective rights protection and adhere to the rule of law does not depend on the charter signed at Runnymede. Excessive reverence for the past robs New Zealanders of a constitutional framework that suits our unique nation. On this basis, the paper concludes that Magna Carta should be repealed.

Subjects: Magna Carta, Rule of law, Imperial statutes, Public law