798 years ago today, King John set his seal on
the Magna Carta. The contents of that historic document had been bitterly argued
over for four days. During those days, as the Barons struggled to wrest the
absolute power of a monarch from his grasp and extract the concessions that we
refer to today as ‘the rule of law’, the King rested in his hunting lodge,
journeying each day to the Runnymede meadows via a specially constructed
The King was unwilling to be stripped of his
sovereign right to chop off your head merely because he thought your eyes were
too close together. He needed no permission to prosecute a citizen. It was the
Barons who wished to see that sovereign right balanced by rights accorded to the
accused:”No free man shall be seized, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed,
or exiled or injured in any way, nor will we enter on him or send against him
except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.”
They wanted the protection that we enjoy today –
that of being ‘innocent until proven guilty’ in a court of law. They wanted
potential accusers to stand in public and state their case, not whisper in the
King’s ear. They wanted the opportunity to refute allegations of wrong doing,
and to have the two versions adjudicated by the calm and ”lawful judgment
of his peers”, not decided by the King and his friends.
In short, that part of the Magna Carta was
centred on the rights of the accused. We are in danger of losing those historic
rights as our Justice system, which now oversees the power of the Crown to
punish citizens, is ever nudged in the direction of achieving a ‘social justice’
on behalf of the victim.
We no longer demand that accusers always ‘stand
in public’ and state their case. We allow ‘vulnerable victims’ to remain in the
shadows, behind a curtain or via video link. We don’t demand that their
accusations are backed by solid evidence, or rather we consider that solid
evidence consists of two or more victim’s alleging the same offence has
occurred. We don’t demand that the victim is particularly specific in their
allegation; we take into account the distress caused to them, the length of time
since the offence occurred, and say ‘roughly’ will do.
We say that even if the Crown doesn’t think it
possesses sufficient evidence to prosecute, or continue a case, that the
‘victim’ should have the right to review that decision. We encourage the victim
to make a statement to the court telling of how much distress the offence has
caused them – and that this is taken into account in the ultimate sentence.
We even say that
if a man has been acquitted of an offence, the ‘victim’s rights’ demand
that he can be prosecuted a second time – so the accused can never have absolute
finality in the matter.
Our Justice system is no longer centred on
curtailing the power of the Crown to ‘injure in any way’ the ordinary citizen,
but to deliver an outcome which is acceptable to the emotional and distressed
victim, or those who cry out on his behalf.
Many of these changes have been wrought or are
proposed in response to the current exceptional spotlight which is being shone
on the emotive subject of child abuse. The subject has largely achieved
public prominence in the wake of the ‘Savile’ revelations of alleged wide spread
child abuse by the entertainer. The flood of allegations came in the wake of the
‘Exposure’ television programme which reported on the claims of abuse at
Savile’s hand made by a small group of girls from an approved school in
Girls who truly walked in King John’s
The underground tunnel to Runnymede has long been
blocked up, though the entrance is still visible. The great Hall where King John
dined with his advisors, mulling over the demands for the rights of the accused,
a staff meeting room. The chamber where he no doubt tossed and turned in
his sleep, now a bedroom in a luxury flat. But Duncroft Hall, King John’s
hunting lodge, still exists; it became Duncroft Approved School.
Perhaps it should be a national monument, the
place where justice for the accused started – and finished. Happy Birthday to
the Magna Carta. 798 years old today – what remains of it.