Roger writing the LAWmag

Sark the Lark: Bon Débarras.

A small, perhaps last bastion of ancient common-law is on the verge of extinction, a likely victim of the European Union legal tsunami.

The small British island of Sark (picture), some 3 miles long and with a population of 600, lies some 25 miles from France and 80 miles off the southern coast of England. There are no cars allowed on Sark; only the occasional farm tractor and even those are heavily restricted.

Island of SarkPopulated for a thousand years, control of the island flipped back and forth between the English and the French until 1565, when Queen Elizabeth I granted a fiefdom to Helier de Carteret. It has been a British dominion ever since, except for a brief Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1945.

Frozen in time, the legal system on the island has remained virtually unchanged.  Since Elizabeth I still implemented the traditions of her ancestor, William the Conqueror, significant parts of the Sark legal system is almost a thousand years old.

The feudal system is alive and kicking, no one allowed to freehold land except the ranking Lord. In turn, the Lord (of which Helier was the first Lord of Sark and the incumbent, Michael Beaumont, the 22nd), is required to ensure the defence of the island and pay some money annually to the British Crown, some $3 (no increase since 1565).

Inheritance was only by primogeniture as was the transfer of the any of the 40 leases granted by the Lord. Only the 40 could participate in government and each must own a musket. The annual trimming of trees encroaching over public walkways is based on an ancient vigilante-type custom. There is no divorce law although foreign divorces are recognized. No one can own pigeons except the Lord but all landowners must give one chicken a year to the Lord. No unspayed female dogs ("bitches") are allowed except those kept by the Lord and the Lord has to approve of any marriage. Lord Beaumont alone appoints all public servants.

But by far the quaintest relic is the hark of Clameur de haro, whereby any resident observing another who he considers to be infringing the law may, by falling on his right knee, in front of at least one witness, recite the Lord's prayer in French followed by "Haro, haro, haro. A mon aide mon prince. On me fait tort" (roughly translated: "Help me, my prince, someone does me wrong!"). The Clameur is then registered and whatever action was being complained of (such as the cutting of a tree or the building of a wall), must cease until the court has heard the complaint.

The beginning of the end was in 1993 when British billionaires David and Frederick Barclay bought a private island, Brecqhou, but arguably part of Sark’s territory. Immediately, the Barclays summoned an army of Old Bailey barristers against the small Sark government. The brothers were not that keen on having Brecqhou go to the oldest Barclay male heir, given that they had four children between them.

When the Barclays brought Sark's real property inheritance laws to the attention of the European Court of Human Rights, Sark heard grumblings from LOndon, saw the writing on the wall, and changed its legislation in 1999.

In Sark, British tradition, and its sloth-like pace of change, continues. When a major British newspaper sought a comment from Lord Beaumont in 2005, given the Barclays’ demands, the butler had to tell the journalist that the Lord "would not be coming to the phone because it was holiday season and he preferred to get on with some gardening".

In 2006, Sark began the process of doing away with land ownership as a prerequisite to a seat in its parliament (called the "Chief Pleas").

Like the advent of the rubber tire on wooden wheels, the replacement of steam engines, evolution is not quick or painless. But considering the gender and wealth caste system feudal law promotes, the only Norman refrain that comes to mind is Haro! Haro! Bon débarras!

References:

  • Frederick and David Barclay v UK, European Court of Human Rights (3rd Section), #35712/97
  • Wall Street Journal + Pittsburg Post-Gazette, Oct. 11, 2005
  • The Guardian, March 9, 2006
  • The Los Angeles Times, March 8, 2007
  • Globe & Mail, July 6, 2007

Posted in Human Rights, International Law
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