The Judge Reviews: Magna Carta mock trial was ‘Love Actually’ for lawyers

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A high-powered bench acquitted a group of tax-dodging barons of treason, as the tills went into overdrive in the Palace of Westminster gift shop


Americans — and to a lesser extent, those from the old Commonwealth — have a real appetite for a taste of Ye Olde Englande.

Even lawyers can get caught in that misty romanticism — and there ain’t much that is more olde and Englande on the legal front than an 800-year-old sheepskin parchment known as Magna Carta.

The reality about Magna Carta is that it was effectively a tax avoidance scheme launched by a group of 13th-century wealthy landowners.

Far from seeing themselves as lighting a torch for liberty that would blaze brightly through the centuries, the barons were mostly concerned with not being forced to pay King John rent.

Sure, buried deep among the clauses of Magna Carta was what has become a clarion call for those fighting the cause of the individual in the face of the oppressive state. “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice …”, etc. But at the time, those sentiments were far from top of the barons’ agenda.

But just as the saccharine cinema tripe from Richard Curtis — “Notting Hill”, “Love Actually” — is cod-Englishness made with Americans in mind, Magna Carta has become part of theme park Britain.

And no better example was provided than last Friday’s bonanza at Parliament.

‘Treason? The trial of the Magna Carta Barons’ was co-produced by the 800th anniversary commemoration committee and the UK Supreme Court, and was billed as a mock trial that would see the barons in the dock for treason.

The venue — Westminster Hall, with parts originally built in 1099 is old in anyone’s book — was spectacular; the great and the good turned out in their droves; and the judging panel (pictured below) was of top quality: Lord Neuberger, President of the UK Supreme Court, Justice Stephen Breyer, a Clinton-appointed judge on the US Supreme Court, and Dame Sian Elias, the Chief Justice of the New Zealand Supreme Court.


Barrister-turned-broadcaster Clive Anderson gave a lively and off-the-cuff performance as King John. While King’s College London history professor David Carpenter put up an equally feisty performance as baron-in-chief Robert FitzWalter. And unleashing their inner amateur thespians were Blackstone Chambers’ James Eadie QC — who acted for the government in the trial of Abu Hamza and in the dispute over the burial of King Richard III — for the prosecution, and Landmark Chambers’ Nathalie Lieven QC went into bat for the barons.

There were also supporting roles for former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, and crossbencher Lord Lisvane. One of the most entertaining performances came from Derek Allen, one of the Supreme Court’s real-life ushers, who read the charges and asked the defendants to enter their pleas.

But what was the point? The judges rather predictably ruled that King John was a vicious, lascivious bastard of a despot and that the barons were not treasonous in forcing him to sign Magna Carta.

That was followed by a summary from BBC man Gavin Esler, who intoned on the importance of the document through the ages. Americans — and many others — nodded in sober agreement.

Fair enough. Renowned pollster Sir Robert Worcester — a Kansas City native who came to the UK some 45 years ago — is the chairman of the anniversary committee. The glossy programme for the mock trail opened with an image of American Bar Association President William Hubbard accompanied by a grim-faced Princess Royal at last June’s Magna Carta rededication gig at Runnymede.

It’s hardly a capital crime if the Americans fancy a bit of 13th century romanticism. But soppiness shouldn’t be confused with historical accuracy.

The much-maligned Human Rights Act has a lot more to do with protecting individual rights against overbearing state power than a few throwaway lines in an 800-year-old tax dodge.



Why is our Judiciary wasting its time on such nonsense?

What about our legal system today? Its being completely ripped to shreds……

Out of touch me thinks……


Not Amused

I find it incredibly difficult to not despair.

“To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice …”

That is precisely what charging £10,000 to issue a claim is doing. The government acknowledge that the charge is more than the cost, ergo it is selling access to justice for profit. It is a tax. Moreover it is not a tax on the super wealthy. It’s a tax on the average SME, the small business and the middle class.

“Hi, you built these Courtrooms with your taxes and you paid for these Judges, but you can’t come in unless you pay us extra”

Not a peep has been heard from the senior judiciary pointing this out.

So now the proposal from the MoJ is to double it to £20,000. No one complained about the horrendously unjust tax that breaches Magna Carta so the MoJ has said “let’s double it”. Why wouldn’t they? No one is willing to even mention what they have done – let alone stop them.

Why oh why should our judges engage in staged shows to celebrate a document which the government has so blatantly breached? What sort of human being thinks it is a good idea to get involved in this?

This is how justice dies, not with a bang but with light entertainment.


Sir Robert Worcester

A cynical blast followed by two fellow cynics; typical. Bet none of the three has read Magna Carta lately. The Mock Trial (see it on our website by the end of the week), may have been ‘just a bit of fun’ but it along with e.g. the Horrible History about Bad King John (on YouTube) carried more information about Magna Carta and the Rule of Law and Human Rights potentially reaching more young people than all the civics lessons in schools in the last decade.


Not Amused

I don’t think dismissing valid comment as ‘cynical blasts’ is really very fair.

The fact remains that Magna Carta was seriously breached in April this year with the change in issue fee – where for the first time in 800 years access to justice is being sold for profit by the state. It may have served a better educative purpose if someone had let the country know that.



You might find David Perry QC acted for the “government” (more accurately referred to as the “prosecution”) in the trial of Abu Hamza. James Eady QC acted in the various civil matters that resulted in extradition



Magna Carter – did she die in vain.
Well someone had to say it.
And for those about to give me the thumbs down I say this –
Infamy Infamy – they’ve all got it in for me.


Ollie Trumpington

Get Magna Carter – Who says Michael Caine hasn’t still got it!



Listen lads I’ve got an idea.



Let’s try that again –
Magna Carta – did she die in vain.
Well someone had to say it.
And for those about to give me the thumbs down I say this –
Infamy Infamy – they’ve all got it in for me.



To say today’s legal system has its flaws is trite, as is saying that the Magna Carta was flawed in conception and delivery and did not transform the world overnight in 1215. It is though an important symbol of an idea of an important idea . Ask someone living in Syria or Iraq about the protection of personal freedom and think about what the rule of law has allowed the adherents to achieve and the personal security it gives us all. Yes our execution of the rules of law is flawed but if we don’t take time to commemorate and mark it we risking forgetting how lucky we are and wane in out efforts to protect it and fight for it.


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