The Habeas Corpus Act is a British Act of Parliament passed in 1679. This Act formalized the recognition of the right of an individual to challenge imprisonment as unlawful. The creation of the Habeas Corpus Act is considered a vitally important moment in legal history, as the Act paved the way for individual rights.
Habeas corpus is a Latin term that means “to hold the body,” though the term is typically used as a synonym for the concept of personal liberty. Though the idea of habeas corpus has existed in British law for centuries, it was not a legally accepted right until the passing of the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. By passing the Act, Parliament was essentially ending the right of the monarchy to imprison a person without charges. This created a fundamental challenge to the eons-old belief that monarchs acted above the law by endowing the individual citizen with unimpeachable rights.
The passage of the Habeas Corpus Act is in itself somewhat of an involved and complex tale. According to historical accounts, the bill was initiated out of fears of some powerful members of the government. In order to prevent disaster from striking through misuse of powers by the king's chancellor, among other people, a faction of Parliament sought to pass the bill as quickly as possible. Some sources suggest that the bill may have in fact not really passed successfully through Parliament, but was the result of a miscount of votes. Nevertheless, England had created a new law, and very possibly altered the course of human history.
Later nations, including the United States, built the principles of habeas corpus into their founding documents and constitutions. In the U.S. Constitution, the right to challenge unlawful detention is listed specifically in Article I, section 9 of the document. This adapted version of the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, however, allows certain provisions for the suspension of the right, namely rebellion or invasion.
One major modern legal controversy dates back to the Habeas Corpus Act. In 2006, the United States Congress passed the Military Commission Act, which allowed the suspension of habeas corpus for people designated as enemy combatants. Critics argued against this, suggesting that the suspension did not meet the conditions laid out in the Constitution, as the country was neither being invaded nor experiencing a rebellion. Many also suggested that passing this Act provided a situation quite similar to what the British Parliament of 1679 feared when it drove through the original Habeas Corpus Act.