Exactly eight hundred years ago, in a field at a place called Runnymede, on the River Thames just outside London, a group of rebellious barons and knights seized King John of England and forced him to sign a document called Magna Carta. This ancient document has formed the basic principles of the rule of law, judicial integrity and independence, and parliamentary democracy throughout the English-speaking world and more widely. It is a continuing legal and political inspiration. Why is this document so significant and what relevance has it to the Albania of today?
In 1214 King John was defeated by the French, thus losing the Duchy of Normandy. In order to finance what would be his last battle, he raised taxes and seized considerable land and wealth from the barons and knights. His reign was in addition described as particularly evil; King John was in the practice of making citizens pay fees to obtain access to the courts, he treated the law as his personal property and the judicial system as a money-making business. So when he lost the war, the barons mobilised their armies and forced the king to make concessions. But, unexpectedly, these concessions were based around points of principle rather than political demands. In signing the Magna Carta, King John had to agree to treat his people as citizens with rights of their own. He had to agree that the king, the government, was also under the law and bound by its provisions. He had to agree to the principle that the judiciary should be independent, not subject to personal, political or financial influence. He had to agree to grant access to the courts to all free men. He had to agree to consult the barons before changing the law.
Almost by accident, these medieval barons had created the concept of rule of law and the beginnings of parliamentary democracy. Over the last eight hundred years, these principles have evolved into the structures and concepts now current across the Western world. Magna Carta has been described as Britain’s greatest gift to the world.
Last week, the ad-hoc parliamentary committee on justice reform and its High Experts’ Group, having spent the last months analysing the legal system in Albania, released their first report. The rather hefty document takes note of widespread corruption in the judicial appointments, finding judges and prosecutors paying bribes up to 300,000 euros in order to be appointed to more lucrative positions. According to the same report, the judicial police officers can destroy evidence at crime scenes, prosecutors refuse to initiate criminal proceedings, and judges delay unnecessarily the scheduling of a first hearing in a criminal trial or may even condition their rulings, in exchange for bribes. Referring to an USAID-supported survey, the United States Ambassador to Albania said that judges themselves believe the system to be corrupt and subject to influence by political parties.
Such reports do indeed bear witness to Magna Carta’s significance and relevance for today’s Albania. Its clauses 40, 41 and 45 stipulate the existence of a legal system, to which people could turn, confident that their rights and interests would not be infringed. Article 41 prevented the king from interfering with the course of justice, expecting that justices appointed under article 45 would administer justice speedily and without corruption, in accordance with the law. Citizens’ trust in the courts can be ensured if and only if the essential principle of judicial independence is respected. The courts are there in order to safeguard the rights and interests of citizens and as a result their authority is based precisely on the trust the society places in the courts’ rulings.
The reign of King John is also the time of stories about Robin Hood, the outlaw who fought injustice and stole from the rich to give to the poor. Robin Hood’s great enemy was the Sheriff of Nottingham, a corrupt judge, who oppressed poor people and honest citizens. He took bribes to distort and misuse the law. He exemplifies in literary and mythical form the evils that the barons of Magna Carta were trying to fight. In Albania, where the struggle for justice is still ongoing, there are some people in the political class who believe themselves to be above the law, like King John. There are some judges who believe that the law does not apply to them. There are some who buy and sell justice and oppress the poor, like the Sheriff of Nottingham. So the principles and inspiration of Magna Carta remain relevant to Albania, as to the rest of the democratic world, as the country continues on its path of democratic and judicial reform.