Page last updated at 14:40 GMT, Wednesday, 21 May 2008 15:40 UK

Sark democracy plans challenged

Chief Pleas
Foreign nationals will still not be able to stand for election to the Chief Pleas

Plans to change the ancient feudal system of government on the Channel Island of Sark have been challenged in the High Court.

Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay are seeking a judicial review of the proposals claiming they do not go far enough towards democracy.

Sark's current constitution means landowners automatically get a seat on the ruling body, the Chief Pleas.

The new system will see the Chief Pleas become an elected body of 28 members.

For many years the Barclay brothers have sought to remove the relics of feudalism
David Pannick QC

The billionaire Barclay brothers own land on Sark and the whole of the neighbouring island of Brecqhou, which the Sark government claims to have authority over.

They object that Sark's hereditary seigneur and seneschal will still have an unelected role in government and claim it amounts to a violation of human rights.

They claim the seigneur is the "effective head of state" and the seneschal "the sole judge".

The brothers are challenging the British Privy Council's recommendation to the Queen that she approve the constitutional changes, which she did in April.

Putting their case at London's High Court their barrister, David Pannick QC said: "For many years, the Barclay brothers have sought to secure amendments to the laws and practices of Sark to remove relics of feudalism and to make those laws and practices compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights."

'Defective' constitution

The brothers are being joined in their challenge by Thomas Slivnic, who lives on Sark.

Even after the changes he will be prevented from standing for election to the Chief Pleas because he is Slovenian and, therefore, regarded as "alien".

He and the Barclays argue that the new constitution is "defective" because it still does not meet obligations under European law to ensure free elections which are free from discrimination.

Sark's system of government dates back to 1565, when Queen Elizabeth 1 granted "letters patent" to the first seigneur to hold the island as a "royal fief".

Reform 'desirable'

Since then the seigneur, the seneschal and 40 landowners have had an automatic right to seats on the Chief Pleas. There are also 12 members who are elected every three years.

The new system will see the Chief Pleas become an elected body of 28 members. It was agreed in a referendum of the island's 600 residents.

The action is being defended by the Privy Council, the Secretary of State for Justice, the Lord Chancellor, and the Committee for the Affairs of Jersey and Guernsey.

Representing the UK government, Jonathan Crow QC said that Sark is a "dependency of the Bailiwick of Guernsey" and therefore not part of the UK or subject to UK law.

He said it was likely that further reform would be "considered desirable" but the UK government wanted to respect Sark's independence and was happy to leave such changes to the reformed Chief Pleas.

The hearing is expected to last two days.

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