The modern relevance of an 800-year-old charter

Sport is business. Business is money. Big sport is big money. World soccer bosses have been playing the game — just as “athletes” take drugs and cricketers help bettors.

The payoff for the public is big circuses.

And not many die putting on those shows, which wasn’t so 800 years ago when tournaments were how young men laid claim to be celebrated. One recent learned description: “hundreds of heavily armed and armoured men lunged at each other on horseback”, “excited horses ridden by excited people” and “naked aggression”.

Exactly 800 years ago next Monday things turned nasty for a venal and despotic English king when his barons forced him to sign the Magna Carta.

It was an extraordinary document for its time, limiting royal power in taxation and justice, asserting freedom (for barons, knights and some freemen) unless judged by peers (again, barons, knights and some freemen), banning arbitrary seizure of property and requiring King John to state: “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

John immediately wrote to the Pope to annul it. The Pope did.

End of story? It was renewed in 1216, 1217 and 1225 under John’s son, Henry III, and again in later reigns. Over time it has acquired a symbolism far beyond its original scope.

In the United States it is regarded as the grandparent of the constitution, guaranteeing rights to all, not just the big boys. “No taxation without representation”, the independence catchcry, traced back to it.

In Britain the Great Charter went downhill after 1650. Oliver Cromwell called it the “magna farta” and imprisoned in the Tower a merchant who tried to invoke it against a tax on silk imports. The 1688 Bill of Rights superseded it and by the end of the nineteenth century it was judged to have slowed rather than speeded up the modern British state’s development.

But it lives. Here, too. The justice and property chapters are explicitly in our law.

In 2000 lawyer Jack Hodder invoked it. Westco Lagan had a contract with a state-owned enterprise for milling rimu under a formal accord. The accord was cancelled by legislation which ruled out compensation. Hodder argued this was inconsistent with the Magna Carta’s ban on arbitrary seizure of property and so with “the law of the land”.

The judge demurred. Parliament had passed a law and that law prevailed.

But in reaching back to the Magna Carta, Hodder, one of this country’s finest legal minds, had restated its foundational place in the history of our legal freedoms and thus our constitution.

Many documents and conventions besides the Constitution Act make up the constitution. It evolves as civil and moral conventions and practices evolve.

For example, a civil dimension is the status of local councils. These are now subordinate creatures of Parliament, at the mercy of its frequent whims.

Should the Constitution Act instead set their responsibilities and powers? Local Government Commission decisions this week on three amalgamation proposals will in effect, if not explicitly, open wider questions about what is the right local government structure 30 years since the last nationwide reforms and six since super-Auckland’s creation. That in turn could logically raise issues of councils’ constitutional status.

Lecretia Seales invited us to rethink a moral constitutional dimension when she sought legal immunity for a doctor to help her die with dignity. In essence, she argued that the right to life — a core right in our Bill of Rights and in our moral code — entails also a right to death on our own terms.

The judge stuck to the letter of the law. Only Parliament, he said, could make the change Seales sought, which polls say a majority of the public backs.

The liquor legislation process shows the way. End-of-life euthanasia backer John Key could tell Justice Minister Amy Adams to introduce a bill. The cabinet would not formally endorse it and leave MPs free to vote as they saw fit.

Seales’ case came too late for Magna Carta student essay competitors, whose winners Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, the cabinet’s constitution guardian, will announce on Monday.

Also too late for the essay writers are Murray McCully’s questionable explanations for the payoff to a Saudi Arabian businessman. Key’s defence of McCully has not been a good look.

This same Key changed the labour law for Warner Brothers (to entice them to make films here) and the gaming law for Sky City (to build a now shrinking convention centre).

None of this demands a baronial assemblage on the meadow of the runes (Runnymede) to rein in the reigning supremo. There is no super-arrogant Sepp Blatter in the Beehive.

But the list is lengthening and there are flickers of arrogance. That can be seen in reflection in many public servants’ over-eager service to imperious ministers.

Some sticklers for good form are agitated. They think checks and balances and correct process are critical to the proper exercise of power.

As the barons scribbled down in 1215.