After 450 years, Sark turns back on feudal law

Mark Hughes
Thursday 10 April 2008 00:00
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For more than 450 years Sark stood alone as one of Europe's last bastions of feudal law, but yesterday marked the end of an era for the tiny Channel island as the UK Privy Council approved changes to its system of government, heralding the arrival of democracy for the first time.

Since the 1500s, Sark, the smallest of the Channel Islands, has been governed by the unelected descendants of the original 40 land-owning families, plus 12 elected deputies. But, following pressure on the island to reform its feudal constitution to comply with the European Human Rights laws and other international obligations, Sark has finally had to make the change to democracy.

The decision was agreed by the island's parliament, the Chief Pleas, back in February and yesterday that decision was formalised by the Privy Council. It means that Sark will now be governed by a chamber of 28 elected members who will stand for office at the island's first elections in December.

The presiding officer of the Chief Pleas, Lieutenant Colonel Reginald Guille, the Seneschal of Sark, said the changes would help modernise the island's judiciary and government.

Speaking after the Privy Council's decision, he said: "For the people of Sark and the Chief Pleas, this is a momentous day. These moves are intended to be a step away from a feudalist system but at the same time still keeping some aspects of that system in place."

Sark, which sits just 80 miles off the south coast, is just three miles long and 1.5 miles wide and has a resident population of about 600. It is car-free and the only forms of transport permitted are horse-drawn vehicles, bicycles, tractors and battery-powered buggies. However, the tiny island was thrust into the public eye in 2000 when Sark came under pressure to reform its system of government in light of the human rights laws. Two proposals for reform were rejected in 2005 and 2007 until February's historic agreement paved the way for yesterday's move to democracy. Paul Armorgie, one of the people's deputies, said at the time of the agreement: "It's a great relief. We have been trying to achieve this for 10 years and now a line has been drawn."

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