On 15 June, 1215, King John sealed the "Great Charter of Liberties" as part of a deal to end the wars that had torn the Angevin Empire apart.

That document, later known as Magna Carta (the Great Charter) survived only two months before John had it annulled by Pope Innocent III. Perhaps Magna Carta would have died there, if John had lived to consolidate his rule over England. But John died from dysentery in 1216. In an effort to gain support in the ongoing war, his 9-year-old son Henry III reissued versions of Magna Carta in 1216 and 1217. Magna Carta would be reissued again and again by successive English kings as it emerged to become a British constitutional keystone.

Despite Magna Carta's venerable character, its written contribution to present New Zealand law is relatively thin. It survives as a single clause in the Imperial Laws Application Act of 1988: "No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his freehold, or liberties, or free customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right."

That short clause is sufficient warrant for continued veneration. For that clause represents a constitutional fundamental; the demand for the impartial rule of law. And it was as a demand for legal restraint of arbitrary rule that Magna Carta has weathered the 800 years since it was sealed by an intemperate king on the fields of Runnymede.


Anniversaries compel us to look back and forward. And when we look back, we observe the salience of Magna Carta in moments of great political conflict. Two examples stand out. First, in the English Civil Wars of the 17th century, the demand that a recalcitrant Charles I satisfy the conditions of Magna Carta was central to the parliamentary revolt that resulted in the execution of the king and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Second, in the American Revolution, the principles of law set out in Magna Carta were essential to the cause of the colonials.

Magna Carta appears at crucial historical moments because it represents important principles. And as New Zealand confronts a variety of difficult and controversial issues, we can look back to Magna Carta for inspiration and guidance. The University of Auckland will host a public speaker series from July 6-10.

Politicians, lawyers, judges, academics and community leaders will guide discussion as to the value of Magna Carta in 21st century New Zealand. Themes include Security and Privacy in the Digital Age, Migration and Refugees and the future of the Treaty of Waitangi (often called the Maori Magna Carta). So far Magna Carta has lasted 800 years. But what significance remains in "the Great Charter of Liberties" in a world so radically different from that of 1215?

• Stephen Winter is a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Auckland.