Bill of Rights

Bill of Rights

In his book, ‘What Next in the Law’, the late Lord Denning wrote: “King James II was a bad king. It was he who favoured the Roman Catholics and was bitterly opposed to the Protestants. It was he who dismissed the judges. 

“It was he who sent Judge Jeffreys on that Bloody Assize. It was he who directed that the Seven Bishops should be prosecuted for seditious libel – when all they had done was to present a petition to the king himself. It was the acquittal of the Seven Bishops that forced the King to flee the realm.”

It was a young barrister called John Somers who drew up a Declaration of Rights. Although very junior at the Bar, he had made a short speech of five minutes which led to the acquittal of the Seven Bishops. Immediately after that trial, he was entrusted with the task of preparing a Declaration of Rights – to which the new King William assented. 

This Declaration became the Bill of Rights 1689. It is not easy to lay your hand on any book which contains the full text of this great document. I will set out here a few of the principle clauses (for the present purpose I will only refer to clauses 1 and 2): 

‘The Lords and Commons…

I … (as their ancestors in like case have usually done) for the vindicating and asserting their ancient rights and liberties, declare:

1. That the pretended power of suspending laws, or the execution of by regal authority, without consent of parliament, is illegal. 

2. That the pretended power of dispensing with laws, or the execution of laws, by regal authority, as it hath been assumed and exercised of late, is illegal.

II … That William and Mary prince and princess of Orange be, and be declared, King and Queen of England…’

UK’s Bill of Rights

Macaulay, in his ‘History of England’ (Volume III) described the importance of the Bill of Rights in these words: “The Declaration of Right, though it made nothing law which had not been law before, contained the germ … of every good law which has been passed … of every good law which may hereafter, in the course of ages, be found necessary to promote the public weal, and to satisfy the demands of public opinion.”

If we are to have a new Bill of Rights, will it too be the germ of the law which, in the complexities of modern society, maintain the rights and freedoms of the individual against the all-powerful bodies that stride about the place?

The executive branch of any government, be it federal, state or local, cannot ignore the people’s call for justice and fair play which throughout the ages have been “found necessary to promote the public weal, and to satisfy the demands of public opinion”. 

The call of public opinion is a call to maintain “the rights and freedoms of the individual against the all-powerful bodies that stride about the place”. The executive branch of any government can ignore the voice of public opinion at its peril. 

Unwillingness to heed the demands of public opinion can lose the mandate of the populace .

I think the writing is already on the wall. The demands of public opinion is a universal one. If the old order has been found wanting, it must give way to the new.


NH CHAN, who is former Court of Appeal judge, lives in Ipoh.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: