He said the document helped England to avoid civil war in the 1200s and its principles — including proportionality in sentencing and the presumption of innocence — were still fundamental today.
“The framers of the document even 800 years ago well understood the fundamental principles that should apply in any system of governance that would have as an important component democracy and recognition of the will of the people and the rights of the people,” he said.
“When you read the document you see the expression of principles that even now are the subject of discussion, of controversy, and principles that, more often than we would like, people in positions of power seek to subvert.”
The committee set up to commemorate its anniversary — which counts High Court Chief Justice Robert French as its patron, and former High Court judge Dyson Heydon, silks Bret Walker and Richard McHugh, businessmen David Lowy and Hugh Morgan and Seven’s Bruce McWilliam among its members — is planning a series of lectures around Australia, a website and talks at schools next year.
The Magna Carta was handwritten in medieval Latin on untanned animal skin. Australia has one of only four surviving copies of the 1297 edition, which was purchased for £12,500 in 1952 and is on display in Parliament House in Canberra.
Rule of Law Institute president Robin Speed hopes to convince MPs to allow the Magna Carta to travel to capital city museums next year. “Many people have heard about it but not many have read it,” he said.
Mr Speed said almost every provision of the Magna Carta still had relevance today; people back then faced similar problems — for example, threats to national security.
“In 1215 you’re dealing with a major crisis,” he said. “We think about terrorists, but they were also thinking about the French who were wanting to invade ... and yet they were very insistent that person’s liberties be protected.
“We can easily exaggerate the importance of national security now, that it was a phenomenon that didn’t exist in 1215, but it certainly did.”
He said he was concerned about the increasing number of laws that removed the privilege against self-incrimination and delivered extraordinary search powers to government — all of which undermined the spirit of the Magna Carta.
Professor Cowdery said the notion that the punishment should fit the crime also remained just as crucial today.
“Moves that have been made and are being made in various jurisdictions around Australia towards mandatory sentencing are contrary to the principles set down and described 800 years ago and reinforced many times ever since,” he said.
He said while the laws might have changed, the fundamental principles guiding their creation and application had not.
“It’s a timely reminder that although the physical environment might change and we might have different ways of doing things now from 800 years ago, people are still people, and people haven’t changed all that much even in those 800 years,” he said. “Because we want to live in harmony and co-operation with each other, we need rules.”
theaustralian.com.au 29 Aug 2014