Eight hundred years ago, a band of rebel barons laid heavy suasion on their king, forcing him to concede – for the health of his soul – that he too was subject to laws, the authority for which both superseded and informed his own.
Whether sincere or merely convenient, it’s a contention at the heart of the Magna Carta: the ‘Great Charter’ signed by King John at Runnymede on June 15, 1215, embodying political, moral and legal quandaries that still exercise us today.
Campion College, through the auspices of its Centre for the Study of Western Tradition, will hold a conference on the landmark document on 28 November, securing one of Australia’s most outspoken and formidable legal minds in Julian Burnside QC.
Mr Burnside will be joined, as the event’s other keynote speaker, by the respected jurist and member of the WA Law Reform Commission, Dr Augusto Zimmermann.
Session presenters include Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson (Magna Carta’s Political Legacy), Notre Dame senior lecturer Dr Keith Thompson (Contemporary Applications of the Magna Carta Principle), Australian Catholic University Assoc Prof Patrick Quirk (Magna Carta Meets our Man in Havana), and Campion College philosophy lecturer Dr Jeremy Bell (Magna Carta, Jury Nullification and the Rule of Law).
Speaking to The Catholic Weekly recently, Dr Bell said he would be tackling an issue implied by one of the charter’s most enduring legacies, contained in article 39: that no free man shall be deprived of life, liberty or property except ‘by the lawful judgment of his peers’.
In the view of the 19th century American jurist, Lysander Spooner, the Magna Carta thereby enshrined juries as having the right to determine the justice or injustice of the laws under which defendants were tried (‘jury nullification’).
And yet for others, such a notion was incompatible with another, much-proffered tenet of the Magna Carta, the ‘rule of law’: the idea, as it came to be developed, that everyone, regardless of status, is subject to the law of the land.
Dr Bell said he would be asking whether jury nullification really was implied in the Magna Carta, and whether there was some kind of natural justice in juries having such a right.
As a practical reality, the history of jury nullification, he said, had been mixed.
In the darkest days of the Jim Crow south, US juries would regularly acquit white defendants who they knew to have killed their black victims.
English juries, on the other hand, would regularly acquit in cases of petty crime, during an earlier age, where the likely punishment was out of all proportion to the offence – when transportation and execution were the norm.
“Is it right that juries are able to nullify? Should judges actually direct juries to the effect that they have this right? Is it fair of them to do so … for defence counsel to do so? The answers might be in some instances ‘yes’, in some instances ‘no’, but there is a real question of principle [at stake],” Dr Bell said.
“The rule of law and jury trials are human contrivances. There’s no natural right to a jury trial in the first place and so the obvious answer is that there is no general answer possible.
“But that answer [for a philosopher] obviously isn’t good enough.”
Dr Bell said he was looking forward to formulating his argument as the conference approached.
The Magna Carta: After 800 Years, hosted by the Centre for the Study of Western Tradition at Campion College, will be held at the Menzies Hotel, Sydney on 28 November.
Full details are available here