The Code of 1771

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This article on the Code of 1771, the first attempt to bring together all existing legislation in Jersey, appeared in Vol 1 No 9 of The Islander, a magazine published in 1939.

Quite recently the States of this island, in their rather inscrutable wisdom, cancelled the title Reglements pour ouvriers et personnes de métier, (page 243 of the Code) which forbade workmen to smoke during work hours. This was sent up to His Majesty in Council and confirmed in due course.

Other anomalies

But many portions of the Code (still law) might well suffer the same treatment, for instance:

  • Library – all persons having a right of entrance to the Library will pay an annual fee of 40 sous for the benefit of the Librarian.
  • Cider – the Constable and Centeniers, assisted by at least four officers, are charged with tasting the cider sold in “cabarets” of their respective parishes.
  • Sunday observance – Any persons found in public houses during Divine Service are to be fined 20 sous.
  • Burdens – All persons found carrying burdens (and, presumably parcels) are to be fined 30 sous with confiscation of the said burdens.
  • Oaths – All persons using oaths at any time, either thoughtlessly or under provocations are to suffer a fine of 10 sous and should such oaths be blasphemous, then the fine is two livres. Insolent blasphemers are to be detained in the stocks for an hour or two.
  • Workmen – Workmen, whether men or women, who work by the day, will from 25 March to 25 September commence work at 5 o’clock in the morning and continue until 7 o’clock in the evening. All persons, whether workmen or craftsmen, who conspire together with reference to their wages or hours of work, or the manner in which their work is to be done, will be punished by a fine not exceeding 20 livres and in the event of a repetition of the offence they will suffer such punishment as may appertain.

Many other portions of the Code of 1771, manifestly suffering from senile decay and not as yet repealed, could be cited.

The last occasion when an article of the Code generally supposed to have fallen into disuse was brought to the notice of the Court occurred in 1908. Then Mr Gilbert, a local butcher, brought an action against the Harbours Committee and the Veterinary Officer of the time, alleging that the latter had refused to pass inflated veal imported by Mr Gilbert. The prohibition is found on page 25 of the Code as follows

Il est défender aux bouchers de soufler la viande qu’il vende au public

This was generally supposed to be in desuetude. The opening part of the judgment of the Court reads as follows:

”Whereas the prohibition against the inflation of meat contained in the Code of 1771 referred to has not been repealed and hs therefore force of law” and judgment went against Mr Gilbert.

The Code

But what is the Code of 1771?

It is a modest little volume of 335 pages containing all the written laws and ordinances of the Island up to that time. About 215 pages of that volume are of no value at all, except perhaps for the historian or the antiquarian. It was printed in St Malo at a time whe, we may assume, the art of printing was not well established in the island.

There is no doubt that for a long period the Royal Court, consisting of the Bailiff and Jurats, made the laws of the Island. This obtains to some extent in Guernsey to this day. Later the Royal Court deliberated with the assistance of the Rectors, the Constables of the 12 parishes and leading inhabitants. If we go further back, we find that the Sovereign made legal ordinances without consulting anybody.

The States appear in the 16th century as an organised body and for possibly two centuries laws were passed sometimes by them and sometimes by the Royal Court.

The Order in Council ratifying the Code declared

”that all other political and written laws heretofore made in the said Island and not included in the said Code and not having had the Royal Assent and Confirmation shall be from henceforward of no force and validity.”

It has been suggested that that portion of the Code still technically in force (although virtually extinct) should be abrogated. This would give place for a neat and bright little volume containing all the “wheat” still contained in the Code. The idea is attractive. Sifting the wheat from the chaff: but we are not sure that this is advisable. The Code of 1771 has enormous roots.

The Code of 1771 covered the legislation of several centuries in its 335 pages. The first volume of Jersey Laws immediately after the Code has 512 pages and represents local legislation from 1771 to 1850. The last volume of Jersey laws has 574 pages and is dated 1937 and 1938.

It will thus be noticed that there has been a pronounced acceleration in local legislation, much of which is of an administrative character and leading up to a large increase in local bureaucracy.

Update

Most, if not all, of the marvellous restrictions in the code still in force in 1939 have now been repealed. The Code was updated in 1962, and it was only then that the regulations relating to Sunday observance and testing of cider lost the force of law. The Code in its revised form was republished in 2009 and Jerripedia editor Mike Bisson is checking to see whether any of the other restrictions mentioned above, which might make life very difficult for postmen and trades union officials, among others, have perchance survived the major revisions of 1848 and 1962.


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