Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 31 Charles II C.2 (1679)

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HABEAS CORPUS ACT OF 1679 31 Charles II c.2 (1679)

The right to the writ of habeas corpus, as zechariah chafee, Jr., said, is "the most important human rights provision in the Constitution" (Article I, section 9) because it safeguards personal liberty, without which other liberties cannot be exercised. This act of Parliament created no new right; the writ was already about a century old as a mechanism by which a prisoner could test in court the legality of his imprisonment. But crown officers knew a variety of stratagems that hamstrung the writ. This statute, which runs on and on in dull detail without a word about the liberty of the subject or any high-sounding principle, sought to seal off every means of circumventing the writ. It is a technical instruction manual—how and what to do in any situation—to make the writ enforceable as a practical remedy for illegal imprisonment. It imposed steep penalties on every officer of government, from the local jailor to the lord high chancellor for breach, evasion, or delay. The only loophole in the statute, a failure to prohibit excessive bail, was plugged in 1689 by the bill of rights. Although the statute did not extend to the colonies, it provided a model, and Americans regarded the great writ as a fundamental right protected by common law and gave it constitutional status.

Leonard W. Levy


Perry, Richard L., ed. 1959 Sources of Our Liberties. Pages 189–203. New York: American Bar Foundation.