The year 2015 is significant in the history of the common law. It is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which was signed by King John of England on 15 June 1215. Interestingly, the purpose for which Magna Carta was originally intended was much narrower than the purpose for which it is used today; today it is referred to as “the cornerstone of English liberty” and “the foundation of constitutional government in England”.
In its time, Magna Carta was the solution to a political crisis between King John (1199-1216) and his barons. The barons were the king’s tenants-in-chief who held land by feudal tenure directly from the king and were granted special powers over their territory. One of the reasons why the political crisis arose was that the king had embarked on a series of expensive military battles to regain territory in Normandy (now modern-day France) that had been recaptured by the French under King Philip Augustus. The loss of these battles, combined with a drop of revenue as a result of lost territories, imposed severe financial costs on King John. As a result, King John behaved in an increasingly unjust and arbitrary manner by exploiting the rights that he enjoyed as head of the feudal system and by imposing unreasonable financial demands on his subjects. For example, the king generated a lot of revenue through taking money from litigants in the king’s courts and by effectively “selling justice”. In addition, as head of the feudal system of land tenure, he ignored custom by increasing the fees and other payments due to him by the barons and by seizing land to satisfy outstanding debts.
A former partner of Linklaters Shanghai, Andrew Godwin teaches law at Melbourne Law School in Australia, where he is an associate director of its Asian Law Centre. Andrew’s new book is a compilation of China Business Law Journal’s popular Lexicon series, entitled China Lexicon: Defining and translating legal terms. The book is published by Vantage Asia and available at www.vantageasia.com.