Monday, June 18, 2007

Our Ancient Liberties

Chris Atkins, author of a book (and also film) called 'Taking Liberties', wrote in the Daily Mail that "our civil liberties, enshrined in British law since the Magna Carta, are being whittled away".

I lose sympathy for arguments about civil liberties whenever I hear the phrase 'ancient liberties' or 'the Magna Carta'.

This assault on our ancient liberties has been going on for a long time. Clause 26 of the Magna Carta was repealed in 1829. There are just three clauses still in force in English law. All the others were repealed by, erm, 1969. Here are some of our ancient liberties which have been lost, from here:

(6) Heirs may be given in marriage, but not to someone of lower social standing. Before a marriage takes place, it shall be' made known to the heir's next-of-kin.

(10) If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands. If such a debt falls into the hands of the Crown, it will take nothing except the principal sum specified in the bond.

(21) Earls and barons shall be fined only by their equals, and in proportion to the gravity of their offence.

(23) No town or person shall be forced to build bridges over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so.

(44) People who live outside the forest need not in future appear before the royal justices of the forest in answer to general summonses, unless they are actually involved in proceedings or are sureties for someone who has been seized for a forest offence.

(47) All forests that have been created in our reign shall at once be disafforested. River-banks that have been enclosed in our reign shall be treated similarly.

(48) All evil customs relating to forests and warrens, foresters, warreners, sheriffs and their servants, or river-banks and their wardens, are at once to be investigated in every county by twelve sworn knights of the county, and within forty days of their enquiry the evil customs are to be abolished completely and irrevocably. But we, or our chief justice if we are not in England, are first to be informed.

(54) No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband.

(57) In cases where a Welshman was deprived or dispossessed of anything, without the lawful judgement of his equals, by our father King Henry or our brother King Richard, and it remains in our hands or is held by others under our warranty, we shall have respite for the period commonly allowed to Crusaders, unless a lawsuit had been begun, or an enquiry had been made at our order, before we took the Cross as a Crusader. But on our return from the Crusade, or if we abandon it, we will at once do full justice according to the laws of Wales and the said regions.

Now Mr Atkins or his friends might well argue that none of the above are relevant to the modern world, whatever their importance in the 13th century. Fine, so why try to drag rhetorical phrases such as 'our ancient liberties' into the debate, particularly when everyone knows that until recently most liberties were the preserve of a small elite, and many of the rights and liberties that we believe are essential today were denied?

The Magna Carta granted all sorts of rights which are not relevant today, and others which are actively pernicious. Particular rights and liberties need to be argued for on their merits and relevance to our modern society, not because they are 'ancient'.


At 9:50 pm , Blogger Hughes Views said...

Howard Jacobson's column about erosion of rights in Saturday's Independent (available on line) was well worth reading....


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