Habeas Corpus Act 1679
|Long title||An Act for the better securing the Liberty of the Subject, and for Prevention of Imprisonment beyond the Seas|
|Citation||31 Cha. 2. 2|
|Royal Assent||27 May 1679|
|Amended by||Statute Law Revision Act 1888
Criminal Law Act 1967
Courts Act 1971
Bail Act 1976
|Text of the Habeas Corpus Act 1679 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from the UK Statute Law Database|
The Habeas Corpus Act 1679 is an Act of the Parliament of England (31 Cha. 2 c. 2) passed during the reign of King Charles II by what became known as the Habeas Corpus Parliament to define and strengthen the ancient prerogative writ of habeas corpus, a procedural device to force the courts to examine the lawfulness of a prisoner's detention in order to safeguard individual liberty and thus to prevent unlawful or arbitrary imprisonment.
Earlier and subsequent history
The Act is often wrongly described as the origin of the writ of habeas corpus. For example the BBC reported in 2005 that because of growing concerns that "kings would whimsically intervene on matters of detention" the writ "was enshrined in law in 1679." But the writ of habeas corpus had existed in England for at least three centuries before and traces its origin back to the Magna Carta in 1215, whose article 39 reads: "No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor will we send upon him except upon the lawful judgement of his peers or the law of the land." The Act of 1679 followed an earlier Habeas Corpus Act of 1640, which established that the command of the King or the Privy Council was no answer to a petition of habeas corpus. Further Habeas Corpus Acts were passed by the British Parliament in 1803, 1804, 1816 and 1862, but it is the Act of 1679 which is remembered as one of the most important statutes in English constitutional history. Though amended, it remains on the statute book to this day.
In criminal matters other than treason and felonies, the act gave prisoners or third parties acting on their behalf the right to challenge their detention by demanding from the Lord Chancellor, Justices of the King's Bench, and the Barons of the Exchequer of the jurisdiction a judicial review of their imprisonment. The act laid out certain temporal and geographical conditions under which prisoners had to be brought before the courts. Jailors were forbidden to move prisoners from one prison to another or out of the country to evade the writ. In case of disobedience jailers would be punished with severe fines which had to be paid to the prisoner.
The Act came about because the Earl of Shaftesbury encouraged his friends in the Commons to introduce the Bill where it passed and was then sent up to the House of Lords. Shaftesbury was the leading Exclusionist—those who wanted to exclude Charles II's brother James, Duke of York from the succession—and the Bill was a part of that struggle as they believed James would rule arbitrarily. The Lords decided to add many wrecking amendments to the Bill in an attempt to kill it; the Commons had no choice but to pass the Bill with the Lords' amendments because they learned that the King would soon end the current parliamentary session.
The Bill went back and forth between the two Houses, and then the Lords voted on whether to set up a conference on the Bill. If this motion was defeated the Bill would stay in the Commons and therefore have no chance of being passed. Each side—those voting for and against—appointed a teller who stood on each side of the door through which those Lords who had voted "aye" re-entered the House (the "nays" remained seated). One teller would count them aloud whilst the other teller listened and kept watch in order to know if the other teller was telling the truth. Shaftesbury's faction had voted for the motion, so they went out and re-entered the House. Gilbert Burnet, one of Shaftesbury's friends, recorded what then happened:
Lord Grey and Lord Norris were named to be the tellers: Lord Norris, being a man subject to vapours, was not at all times attentive to what he was doing: so, a very fat lord coming in, Lord Grey counted him as ten, as a jest at first: but seeing Lord Norris had not observed it, he went on with this misreckoning of ten: so it was reported that they that were for the Bill were in the majority, though indeed it went for the other side: and by this means the Bill passed.
The clerk recorded in the minutes of the Lords that the "ayes" had fifty-seven and the "nays" had fifty-five, a total of 112, but the same minutes also state that only 107 Lords had attended that sitting.
- The citation of this Act by this short title was authorised by the Short Titles Act 1896, section 1 and first schedule. Due to the repeal of that provision it is now authorised by the Interpretation Act 1978, section 19(2)
- 'Charles II, 1679: An Act for the better secureing the Liberty of the Subject and for Prevention of Imprisonments beyond the Seas.', Statutes of the Realm: volume 5: 1628-80 (1819), pp. 935-38. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=47484. Date accessed: 6 March 2007.
- "A brief history of habeas corpus". BBC News Online. 9 March 2005. Retrieved 25 October 2014.
- Acevedo, John Filipe (212). Miller, Wilbur R., ed. The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America: An Encyclopedia. London, United Kingdom: SAGE Publications Ltd. p. 729.
- "A Documentary History of Human Rights. Ed. Jon. E. Lewis. New York: Carroll& Graf Publishers, 2003. p. 267.".
Habeas Corpus Act (1679)
In 1660, the Stuarts re-ascended the throne of England. Old tendencies towards Catholicism and absolutism proved little diminished, however, and a prudently watchful parliament determined to pass an Act enshrining Habeas Corpus. This was an ancient English right that, if a man was imprisoned by a local lord, his friends could request the king to issue a writ commanding the man who “have the body” (Habeas Corpus) of the prisoner to bring the prisoner before a magistrate for a proper trial. Under a tyrannous king, such as Charles I, the process could be willfully ignored. In 1679, Parliament passed the Habeas Corpus Act against future abuse.
The following are the main provisions:
Whereas great delays have been used by sheriffs. . . , to whose custody any of the king’s subjects have been committed for criminal or supposed criminal matters, . . . by other shifts to avoid their yielding obedience to [writs of Habeas Corpus], contrary to their duty and the known laws of the land, whereby many of the king’s subjects have been. . . long detained in prison in such cases where by law they are bailable. . . .
II For the prevention whereof and the more speedy relief of all persons imprisoned for any such criminal or supposed criminal matters; be it enacted by the king’s most excellent Majesty, by and with the consent of the lords. . . that whensoever any person or persons shall bring any habeas corpus directed to any sheriff. . . .that the said officer. . . shall within three days. . . bring or cause to be brung the body of the party so committed . . . before the lord chancellor. . . unless the commitment of the said party by in any place beyond the distance of twenty miles from the place or places where such court of person is or shall be residing, and if beyond the distance of twenty miles and not above one hundred miles then within the space of ten days of such delivery and not longer. . . . .
V And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that if any officer or officers. . . shall neglect or refuse to make the returns aforesaid. . . [he]shall for the first offence forfeit to the prisoner or party grieved the sum of one hundred pounds. . . . . . . .
VI . . . be it enacted by the authority aforesaid, that no person or persons, which shall be delivered or set at large upon any habeas corpus, shall at any time hereafter again be imprisoned or committed for the same offence . . . other than by the legal order and process of such [appropriate] court. . . . . . . .
X Provided also, and be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that it shall and may be lawful to and for any prisoner and prisoners as aforesaid to move and obtain his or their habeas corpus as well out of the high court of chancery or court of exchequer as out of the court of king’s bench or common pleas. . .
- Quoted in J. E. Powell, Great Parliamentary Occasions (The Queen Anne Press, 1966), p. 65.
- Powell, p. 65.
2. Quote originally taken from Hodder E, The Life and Work of the Earl of Shaftesbury (London: Cassell and Company Limited, 1887), p. 11
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- (Partial) Text of the 1679 Habeas Corpus Act