Habeas corpus is, indeed, one of the most distinctive features of English law and may well be the oldest in force. The law means literally “you shall have the body”, but in practice allows any court of law to demand that any person is brought before it. Historically it has been used to stop a person being held in prison unlawfully or without a fair trial.

Habeas corpus is often said to originate in Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215. The habeas corpus provisions in Magna Carta were codifying an already existing procedure that dates back to the 1130s and probably to pre-Norman England.

Although habeas corpus is still on the statute book, the version now in force dates from the amended Magna Carta issued by Edward I in 1297. The oldest formally written law still in force in England is therefore the Distress Act of 1267. This made it illegal to seek ‘distress’, or compensation for damage, by any means other than a lawsuit in a court of law – effectively outlawing private feuds.

Answered by Rupert Matthews, historian and author.

This article was first published in August 2009