JURATS - Something to emulate?

Timothy Hanson explains the role of the Jurats in the Channel Islands and asks whether this is a system that the English courts should adopt.

Many legal systems place great importance upon lay persons adjudicating in courts and tribunals but how those persons are chosen, the precise role that they perform and the qualities that they are supposed to bring to the legal process are issues that often excite lively debate.

The Channel Islands enjoy as part of their legal systems adjudicators known as Jurés-Justiciers or “Jurats” who normally have no legal qualifications or training before being able to take up their posts in court. Historically, the Jurats have played an essential part in the Channel Islands being able to maintain their curious constitutional position in the British Isles by their knowledge and application of the customary laws prevailing in each island and their jealous protection of such customs from outside interference.

Bailiwicks

The Channel Islands consist of two separate “bailiwicks,” being the old term for an area of jurisdiction under a bailie or Bailiff: one comprising Jersey, the other Guernsey and a number of her dependent Islands, notably including Alderney and Sark. The Channel Islands form part of the British Isles but are not part of the United Kingdom and are actually situated much closer to the coast of Normandy than England. Importantly, the Channel Islands enjoy the right to govern themselves on all internal domestic matters. As one might expect, therefore, the law in the Islands has developed differently from that of the UK. Indeed, as the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey are separate legal systems albeit united ultimately in the hands of the Crown, there are even significant differences between the laws of each Bailiwick.

Jurats’ differing roles and powers

In Alderney the Jurats are comparable to Lay Justices or Magistrates except there are seven of them including a chairman and they are assisted by the Greffier (a legally qualified clerk to the court) in both civil and criminal matters. In contrast, the Jurats in Jersey and Guernsey form, with their respective Bailiff (or his substitute) as the presiding Judge, the Royal Court of Jersey and the Royal Court of Guernsey. The Bailiff is the sole judge of law (including procedure) and awards costs while the Jurats are the judges of fact, assess damages in civil cases and impose sentences in criminal cases. The Bailiff has a casting vote when the Jurats are unable to reach a majority decision.

In Jersey, when the Royal Court hears a civil or criminal case, more frequently it does so as the Inferior Number and is constituted by the Bailiff and, where necessary, two Jurats although there is scope for it to sit as the Superior Number with no less than five Jurats. Jury trials are only possible in Jersey where non-statutory offences are involved otherwise the Jurats will also deal with criminal trials. In Guernsey, by contrast there are no jury trials at all. The Royal Court of Guernsey will sit as the Ordinary Court comprising the Bailiff and at least two Jurats (though in practice three sit) or the Full Court comprising the Bailiff and at least seven Jurats.

How are they chosen?

The Jurats in both Jersey and Guernsey are elected through an electoral college (which include local politicians and in Jersey, the legal profession also) whilst Jurats in Alderney are appointed by the Secretary of State in England. The Jurats clearly do add a separate and important dimension to the legal process and are varied in their backgrounds. They have for example, been appointed from accountants, dentists, teachers, company managers, doctors, bankers, former politicians, nurses, the police force, pilots and retailers. By virtue of such diversity, the Court of Appeal of Jersey has in fact recognised that the Jurats are in a good position to perform their sentencing duty, necessarily being a more integral part of public opinion, collectively and individually, than is an English Judge.

Whilst Jurats do have a varied background, they also share certain common features. In general, they tend to be retired or at the very least not in full-time employment and necessarily have to have sufficient income and assets to give them the freedom to perform their office which is essentially unpaid. They also tend to be in the 60-70 age range: the average age of current Guernsey Jurats (including Suppléants) is over 66 and in Jersey is 68. In Alderney, the average age of a Jurat is slightly more youthful at 59 (as at 2009). Until the 1980s, the Jurats were also male strongholds. The appointment of women has come rather late in the day – in Jersey the first female Jurat was elected in 1980 and in Guernsey 1985, although several women currently serve as Jurats in both Bailiwicks. As to ethnic diversity, it is appropriate to observe that all of the current Jurats are British as is required for eligibility to the post, either having been born in the island concerned or having lived there for a requisite amount of time. The fact that they are also white is perhaps not surprising given the demographics.

A Queen’s Counsel who also sits as a Judge of the Royal Court has described the system of Judge and Jurats in rather glowing terms:

“The fact that the Jurats are members of a small standing college of lay-judges, all of whom have considerable experience of, and have attained some distinction in, other walks of life contributes significantly to the degree of authority with which judgments of the Royal Court are regarded by the community at large, and also the consistency of decisions, in a way that could not be replicated if the lay members of the court were picked at random on an ad hoc basis, case by case, or if the court consisted of a judge sitting alone. Also, as a visiting Commissioner, I have certainly felt greatly assisted and assured by being part of a larger tribunal that includes members of the local community of experience and distinction. If there were any indication that they were inclined to regard their role as something of a formality, there would be cause for concern: but in practice, the time, sense of dedication and independence of mind that they bring to the discharge of their (honorary) functions never ceases to impress. I would happily see something similar adopted in the English courts.”

Even in the 21st century, the Jurat system is no curiosity of the past but something of which the Channel Islanders can be justifiably proud. Indeed, it is a system that is worthy of being imitated in England and Wales.

Timothy Hanson is a barrister and Jersey advocate at Hanson Renouf, Jersey.

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