What is the Habeas Corpus Act?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

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.

Article 1 of the Constitution mentions a writ of habeas corpus.
Article 1 of the Constitution mentions a writ of habeas corpus.

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 Habeas Corpus Act allows a person the right to challenge unlawful detention.
The Habeas Corpus Act allows a person the right to challenge unlawful detention.

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.

Habeas Corpus paved the way for individual rights in the US.
Habeas Corpus paved the way for individual rights in the US.

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.

Some civil rights activists charge the Military Commission Act of 2006 is unconstitutional.
Some civil rights activists charge the Military Commission Act of 2006 is unconstitutional.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


I am pretty sure there is a connection between the Habeas Corpus Act and the Salem With Trials. The Habeas Corpus Act gave rights concerning being held. The Salem Witch Trials is where historians have said that the idea of trials changed from the accused being "guilty until proven innocent" to "innocent until proven guilty" which is the basis of trial courts used today against the accused.

The Habeas Corpus Act was the first law that really gave rights to the accused concerning being held and lawfully arrested. The Salem Witch Trials began the idea of reasonable doubt and that the accused will have reasonable rights until they are proven guilty.

These two things worked hand in hand with one another and changed the attitude of law to allow people being arrested or imprisoned rights, which was something incredibly revolutionary at the time.

These two are definitely something that fits with the era in England and the move for democracy and fairness in regards to individual rights and liberties.


@JimmyT I think that your assumption about the English Bill of Rights being passed due to the Habeas Corpus Act, as well as the other laws being passed is a debatable thing to discuss, but what cannot be ignored is that it did impact the area of law in the Western World forever.

The Act in the 1670's was an Act which completely revolutionized English law, as well as the nations that base their law off of English law. Habeas Corpus was something that covered an area of law that centered around democracy and individual liberties and is something that is phenomenally popular.

The only time that Habeas Corpus can be suspended, at least in the United States, is during times of war and this has happened in the past. The Habeas Corpus Act of 1863 suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War and it caused many people to stay in prison for several years during the duration of the war. This brings about the issue of constitutionality, but then again it was in a time of war and that becomes a debate in itself.


@jmc88 - You are absolutely correct and the Habeas Corpus Act cannot be looked over in regards to its importance and its importance cannot at all be overstated.

England has always been the main basis, at least in the Western World, for basing law off of and the Habeas Corpus Act has impacted every single nation that bases their law off of England. The Habeas Corpus Act gives those imprisoned rights and that was something that had never been thought of before, as odd as it seems now, and completely revolutionized the law.

Soon after the Habeas Corpus Act, you had the Glorious Revolution, which took power from the King and gave it essentially to Parliament. This meant that the English Bill of Rights was created and the English people had more rights. This all started due to the Habeas Corpus Act and what was passed after in order to comply with this Act and be consistent with the rest of the law shaped around this act.


The Habeas Corpus Act may be one of the most important acts in the recorded history of law and was probably a forerunner for the English Bill of Rights.

Prior to the Habeas Corpus Act it was entirely legal for someone to be held imprisoned without reason being given. Someone can be held nowadays on suspicion, but they can only be held for a limited amount of time. Prior to the Habeas Corpus Act someone could be held without reason for years, and this was definitely something that happened, with some people spending decades behind bars without legitimate reason.

By passing the Habeas Corpus Act it meant that people who were arrested actually had rights once they were arrested which the authorities and courts had to abide by. Although it may not seem like much, this was a grey area in law and a loophole for a King's enemies to be legally imprisoned. This gave more individual rights and completely revolutionized the area of law and arrest procedures.

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