Habeas Corpus - Origins in England

Origins in England

Further information: English law

In the 17th century the foundations for habeas corpus were "wrongly thought" to have originated in Magna Carta. This charter declared that

No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseized 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.

Blackstone cites the first recorded usage of habeas corpus ad subjiciendum in 1305, during the reign of King Edward I. However, other writs were issued with the same effect as early as the reign of Henry II in the 12th century. Blackstone explained the basis of the writ, saying "The King is at all times entitled to have an account, why the liberty of any of his subjects is restrained, wherever that restraint may be inflicted." The procedure for issuing a writ of habeas corpus was first codified by the Habeas Corpus Act 1679, following judicial rulings which had restricted the effectiveness of the writ. A previous law (the Habeas Corpus Act 1640) had been passed forty years earlier to overturn a ruling that the command of the King was a sufficient answer to a petition of habeas corpus.

Then, as now, the writ of habeas corpus was issued by a superior court in the name of the Sovereign, and commanded the addressee (a lower court, sheriff, or private subject) to produce the prisoner before the royal courts of law. A habeas corpus petition could be made by the prisoner himself or by a third party on his behalf and, as a result of the Habeas Corpus Acts, could be made regardless of whether the court was in session, by presenting the petition to a judge. Since the 18th century the writ has also been used in cases of unlawful detention by private individuals, most famously in Somersett's Case (1772), where the black slave Somersett was ordered to be freed. In that case these famous words are said to have been uttered "The air of England has long been too pure for a slave, and every man is free who breathes it".

The privilege of habeas corpus has been suspended or restricted several times during English history, most recently during the 18th and 19th centuries. Although internment without trial has been authorised by statute since that time, for example during the two World Wars and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the habeas corpus procedure has in modern times always technically remained available to such internees. However, as habeas corpus is only a procedural device to examine the lawfulness of a prisoner's detention, so long as the detention is in accordance with an Act of Parliament, the petition for habeas corpus is unsuccessful. Since the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998, the courts have been able to declare an Act of Parliament to be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, but such a declaration of incompatibility has no legal effect unless and until it is acted upon by the government.

The wording of the writ of habeas corpus implies that the prisoner is brought to the court for the legality of the imprisonment to be examined. However, rather than issuing the writ immediately and waiting for the return of the writ by the custodian, modern practice in England is for the original application to be followed by a hearing with both parties present to decide the legality of the detention, without any writ being issued. If the detention is held to be unlawful, the prisoner can usually then be released or bailed by order of the court without having to be produced before it. It is also possible for individuals held by the state to petition for judicial review, and individuals held by non-state entities to apply for an injunction.

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