The principal Court of Justice in both Jersey and Guernsey has been known, at least since the 13th century, as the Royal Court (Cour royal). In both islands the Court is composed of the twelve Jurats under the presidency of the Bailiff.
Jersey's Royal Court
Its origin is bound up with the problem of the origin of Jurats. The Cartulaire shows it functioning through the 13th century, but it was overshadowed by the triennial visits of the Justices Itinerant, for whom all important cases were reserved. The last of these visitations was in 1351, and in 1349 the Warden of the Isles was given "full power to judge and chastise evil doers and exercise full Jurisdiction in the King's name" Still, however, disputes from the islands were taken before the King's Bench at Westminster; but in 1368 this Court declared itself incompetent to deal with them and henceforth they were left entirely to the Royal Court with right of appeal to the Privy Council.
In the 14th century the Court divided itself into two tribunals, the Cour d'Heritage, dealing with real property, and the Cour de Catel, dealing with chattels and criminals. Two subsidiary Courts were added later, whose duties were never very closely defined, the Cour du Billet and the Cour du Samedi. The Cour de Catel was abolished in 1863.
In the lower Courts the Bailiff and two Jurats form a quorum. Appeals from these lie to the Full Court, at which seven Jurats must be present. In addition to its Judicial powers the Royal Court till the middle of the 16th century was the only legislative body in Jersey. As the States of Jersey began to gain power, Acts of the States and Ordinances of the Court had equal authority. In 1771 an Order in Council withdrew from the Court all legislative rights.
There are three full time judges of the Royal Court: the Bailiff, Deputy Bailiff and the Master. The Bailiff is the Chief Justice of the court and is assisted by the Deputy Bailiff. The Bailiff and Deputy Bailiff are the trial judges and together with two Jurats sit as the Inferior Number of the Royal Court to try civil cases and criminal matters that are not tried before a jury. When the Court is convened to impose sentences of longer than four years imprisonment the Superior Number sits with a minimum of five Jurats.
The Master deals with interlocutory matters in civil cases only. The volume of work in the Royal Court is such that part time Commissioners are appointed to act as judges for both civil and criminal trials.
Commissioners are legally qualified persons appointed by the Bailiff to sit as judges of the Royal Court under the provisions of the Royal Court (Jersey) Law 1948.
No appointment of a Commissioner can be made unless the person:
- Holds or has held judicial office in the Commonwealth
- Has been at least 10 years in practice at the Bar or as a Solicitor of the Royal Court
- Has been at least 10 years in practice at the Bar in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Guernsey or the Isle of Man
The Bailiff will often appoint a Commissioner to preside over the court either for a specific case or for a particular period. Such judges are often appointed to deal with particularly long cases or when it is otherwise inappropriate for the Bailiff or Deputy Bailiff to sit.
Role of the Judges
The roles of the Bailiff, Deputy Bailiff and Commissioners in the court, are identical; they are the sole judges of law and procedure and have the power to award costs.
Héritage Division The Héritage Division determines all proceedings relating to immovable (real) property in Jersey, such as disputes as to the ownership of land or the division of land between heirs when the owner of land dies without making a will.
Family Division The Family Division deals with suits for divorce, judicial separation, nullity of marriage and financial matters following to divorce proceedings. The division also deals with applications regarding access to and maintenance for children, applications for adoption, legitimacy declarations and proceedings with regard to the care and protection of children.
Probate Division The Probate Division has jurisdiction in all probate and adminstration matters, and determines all questions relating to a testamentary cause or matter.
Samedi Division The Samedi Division deals with all other matters, both civil and criminal. The Samedi Court is so called because it used to sit on a Saturday. Nowadays the it sits on a Friday. The Samedi Court sits in open court at 2.30 pm to pass contracts in connection with sales and transactions involving immovable property, hear the first presentation of representations to the court in civil matters and deal with civil cases listed on the Royal Court Table.
- Passing contracts
- An account of the process in the Samedi Court
- Arms from the Royal Court of 1648, an Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise article
- Royal Court and States Building art collection
- An 1861 complaint about the Court's impartiality
Guernsey's Royal Court
The Royal Court Building has existed on its present site in St James Street, St Peter Port, since the early 1800s, although the original building has been substantially redeveloped and extended on a number of occasions since then. One of the most significant extensions was completed in 2005 and this was followed by a major refurbishment of the original "historic" buildings.
Today, the Court Building caters for a very wide range of activity, including:
- Criminal and civil court proceedings
- Registration of births, deaths and marriages
- Registration of property conveyances
- Marriage ceremonies
- Archives and research
- Meetings of Guernsey's parliament, the States of Deliberation
- Civic Receptions
- Ceremonial Occasions
Although the earliest existence of a Court building in Guernsey is unclear, the first reference is in the 12th Century, when documents show that the Court met in a building in St Peter Port in a district known as La Plaiderie (literally translated as the place of pleading).
Following the outbreak of the Civil War, the Court was relocated to Elizabeth College to put it out of the range of the Royalist bombings from Castle Cornet. After the war, it returned to La Plaiderie, although this was less than satisfactory, as the building was also used as a store for the Governor for dues paid to the Crown in the form of grain.
In 1766 the States met to discuss the matter as the building was said to be in a dangerous condition. They resolved to apply £700 towards the renovation.
The building was not, however, large enough to meet the needs of the Court. Indeed, the States noted in 1792 that it was necessary for the Greffiers (clerks of the Court) to keep the public records at their own houses due to lack of space at the Court.
It was resolved to seek permission from the Crown to sell the old Court property to help finance the purchase of a plot of land and construction of a new building. Funds were also provided from other revenues, including a lottery. The land deemed suitable for the new Court was situated in Rue du Manoir and was owned by the then Bailiff, William Le Marchant, and in November 1792 the site was purchased and building work commenced.
The stone on the pediment of the current Royal Court building bears the legend "GIIIR 1799" recording the fact that the façade was completed in that year of the reign of King George III. It took several years for the building to be completed and records from the time appear to indicate that the first sitting of the new Court took place on 17 January 1803.
By 1821, the building had been outgrown again and the States agreed to a further purchase of land behind the building to enable expansion of the existing rooms and the construction of an upstairs Chamber which could be used by the States for their meetings.
In 1824, the States agreed to purchase more land behind the Court to build stables for the horses of those Jurats who resided in country parishes. By 1876, however, these stables were no longer used and the States agreed that the area should be developed as a fireproof room to house the important public records of the Greffe. There had been concern that, with several open fires being used to heat the buildings, these records were at risk of being damaged or burnt.
There was at this time a concern that prisoners held in the old prison had to be conveyed across the open streets to the Court and it was agreed that property between the Court and the prison should be purchased to allow for a tunnel to be built.
It was not until 1902 that the next stage of development work took place. The original Greffe Strongroom was extended to include a mezzanine floor, reached by a small spiral staircase, still in use today. Further court rooms, offices and a library were also provided.
Over the subsequent years, there were many plans to create a more substantial Chamber for the Royal Court to convene and meetings of the States of Deliberation to be held. However, none of these came to fruition until 1946, when the proposals were revived, resulting in the complete refurbishment of the original first floor Royal Court Chamber. This building is still in use today for meetings of the States, civil court work and ceremonial occasions.
On the northern side of the Court, there remained an undeveloped area. The States decided in 1954 that this should be the site of the new Police Station and the offices for the Law Officers of the Crown. St James Chambers was officially opened on 5th January, 1956.
Demands for space and offices grew steadily and a further extension to the Court was constructed in 1982, providing a third Court room, as well as additional office accommodation.
Court of Alderney
Alderney has its own judicial system. The Court of Alderney deals with all civil matters and is administered by six Jurats and a Chairman.
Appeals are made to the Royal Court in Guernsey and then to the Channel Islands' Court of Appeal and ultimately to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council