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The Habeas Corpus Act of 1679
Did You Know?
After the 9/11 terror attacks, the US Congress attempted to restrict habeas corpus from being used by enemy soldiers captured in battle.
Habeas Corpus, by definition, is a writ or a court order that directs law enforcement officers to present the prisoner who has filed the writ before it, thus ensuring that no one is arrested unjustly or arbitrarily. Habeas corpus is a Latin term that can be translated as you may have the body, though only after legal certification by a judge.
The history of this writ can be traced back to 1679, the year when the British Parliament passed the Habeas Corpus Act during the monarchy of King Charles the Second, though the writ of habeas corpus existed even before this, and probably even before the Magna Carta. While the Act does not judge whether the detained prisoner is guilty or innocent, it simply decides whether an arrest was valid in the concerned circumstances or not.

The Habeas Corpus Act was passed by the parliament in the backdrop of the French Revolution and a civil war in England. During the revolution, the French monarch had imprisoned thousands of political dissidents without any justification, and it sparked the realization in England that a legal barrier should be created to prevent the king from similarly abusing his power of arrest. The Act was the idea of British Lord Ashley Cooper, who was the Earl of Shaftesbury. While he successfully coaxed his friends in the House of Commons to pass the Bill, when it further went to the House of Lords for approval, it faced many hurdles. The only reason it was finally approved was because of a miscount of votes. Over the centuries, the Act was included in the constitutions of several countries, such as the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. Here is a summary of the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679.
Summary
The Act begins by observing that officers of law have shown delays in responding to writs of habeas corpus, and appearing before a court of law, while unjustly detaining prisoners for bailable offenses, which is also against the principles of law. The 1679 session of the British Parliament, after approval by the House of Commons and that of the Lords, and after the King's assent, had passed this Act to protect the rights of any person who had been taken into custody for criminal or any other offense. Such a person can issue a writ of habeas corpus against the sheriff, jailer, any other officer, minister, or even against any other person who has detained him.
This writ should be submitted at the prison where he had been detained, to the subordinates of the officer who had arrested him. The officer or his subordinates who receive such a writ should bring the prisoner within three days to a court of law, without escaping. The court shall provide for all the expenses of travel at the rate of twelve pence per mile. The Act explicitly states that such a writ of habeas corpus will not be effective in case the prisoner has been arrested for offenses like felony or treason.
The court shall decide whether an officer's act of detaining a person was lawful or not, and such an officer will have to pay the expenses of transporting the prisoner back. The officer shall be responsible for bringing the detained person before the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England, judges, barons, or any other authority of the court who can deliver a judgment on the writ. This delivery of the detained prisoner must occur within ten days, if the distance from the court and the place where the detention occurred is between 20 to 100 miles, and within twenty days if the distance exceeds a hundred miles, but not any longer.
The officer responsible for detention should not claim to be unaware of the writ, which shall be marked and signed by the person who has awarded it. The person who has been detained for any offense except the ones stated above, and who has not been convicted or sentenced to death, can then submit a complaint before any authority of the court, such as the Lord Chancellor, Keeper, Baron, or any justice. Such an authority, on receiving copies of the warrant, can then issue a habeas corpus in presence of two witnesses, provided this authority serves as a judge of the court.
The significance of the Act is that it is directed at the officers who have unfairly detained the prisoner, and the writ must be returned to the same court by the officer when he brings the prisoner to court. Within two days of the prisoner being brought, the authorities of the court can immediately order the release of the prisoner after receiving some money as surety from the prisoner, the amount of which shall be at the discretion of the authority. The prisoner is then expected to present himself at the next session of the Court of the King's Bench or at any court which has the jurisdiction to try his offense, and the writ should also be returned.
Prisoners who do not apply for a habeas corpus within two court terms after their incarceration cannot be issued the same in vacation time. Moreover, any officer, or his subordinates who refuse to bring the prisoner before the court, or refuse to provide a true copy of the warrant or commitment, shall have to pay the prisoner with a fine of one hundred pounds, and two hundred pounds for a second offense. For a third offense, they shall be removed from duty. Both the parties―the prisoner and the arresting officer―shall have only one opportunity to reach a mutual agreement.
The Act also ensures that a person is protected from repeated, unjust convictions, and states that the responsible party shall be required to pay a fine of five hundred pounds to the victim. The Act also lays down an exception in which persons convicted of felony and treason can be set free by the court if it receives a motion by the prisoner on the last day of its term, if he is not convicted of his crime in the next term. The Act does not apply to prisoners convicted of civil cases, and those people who are set free for criminal cases are expected to serve their sentence for their civil case, if any, immediately afterward.
It is also illegal for prisoners of one prison and under the watch of one set of officers be transferred to another prison, unless this transfer is in accordance with the judgment of any court on a habeas corpus, or any other judgment of a court, or under due process of law, or in case of a fire or illness. Both, the prisoners who violate this rule and the officers who oversee it will have to pay the fine as mentioned before.
This Act prevents imprisonment of citizens in any overseas prison that is a part of the British Empire, and any such person unjustly detained is eligible to file a habeas corpus against the officer or individual who is responsible for his imprisonment. The persons responsible for such imprisonment shall be made to pay a fine of at least 500 pounds, and both the plaintiff and the accused will be given only one opportunity to reach a mutual agreement. The officer or his subordinates responsible for this imprisonment are also not eligible to bear any office of profit in any part of the British Kingdom, and they also have to suffer the penalties given in the sixteenth year of King Richard the Second. They are also not eligible to receive any pardon from either the King, or his successors.
The Act is not applicable in cases where a person has signed any contract with a plantation owner allowing him to be transported overseas, but later violates the contract. However, it allows individuals to request themselves to be transferred to any prison overseas from a court of law. The Act is not applicable for people who have committed offenses in kingdoms like Scotland, Ireland, or any foreign plantations of the King, to be set free, and such persons shall be tried as per laws before the Act was passed. This act is not applicable in cases of imprisonment before the year 1679.
People who commit any offense against this Act can only be prosecuted if the habeas corpus is filed within two years from the date of the offense. In case the person is in prison for any previous crime, then the habeas corpus should be filed within the span of two years after the person's death or release from prison, whichever occurs earlier. Finally, the Act allows the defendants to argue their innocence, if they can produce sufficient evidence to back their claims.
The Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 is said to occupy a mythical position in people's mind. While the Act was passed to protect prisoners from injustice, it has been superseded by other, more detailed laws. However, it has not been abolished, and is invoked, albeit rarely.