Page last updated at 08:02 GMT, Monday, 8 December 2008

Sark's winding road to democracy

By Lynne French
BBC News, Sark

Seigneur Michael Beaumont
The seigneur pays one twentieth of a knight's pay to the Queen each year

For the residents of Sark the road to democracy has been a long and, some might argue, tortuous one.

But despite all the twists and turns, after nearly 450 years of feudal rule the tiny Channel Island is preparing to democratically elect 28 conseillers who will make up its government - the Chief Pleas.

This historic election, and the reasons behind it, has aroused worldwide interest to both the delight and consternation of residents.

Sark is the smallest of the four main Channel Islands. It is just 3 miles (4.8km) long and 1.5 miles (2.4km) wide, with a resident population of about 600.

A total of 57 candidates have put themselves forward for election - about 12% of the 474 eligible voters.

1940: German occupation
1999: Female inheritance rights
2003: Right to divorce granted
2004: Death penalty abolished
2008: Law Reform approved

The roots of the current feudal system can be traced back to the mid 16th Century when Queen Elizabeth I granted Seigneur Helier De Carteret the fiefdom (inherited lands) of Sark.

This gave the seigneur (Lord) the right to colonise the island with 40 families from St Ouen in Jersey on the condition he guarded the island for the Crown, protecting it from pirates.

The descendants of those families have governed Sark ever since, with the exception of World War II, when German troops occupied the Channel Islands from 1940 until they were liberated in 1945.

The current seigneur is 80-year-old John Michael Beaumont, who inherited his position as feudal overlord in 1967 upon the death of his grandmother and the Dame of Sark, Sibyl Hathaway.

In keeping with every seigneur over the past four centuries, Mr Beaumont has continued to pay the annual sum of 1.79 (one twentieth of a knight's fee) to the British Crown for his fiefdom.

The first tentative step to democracy was taken in 1922 when the Chief Pleas, made up of the 40 hereditary tenants (landowners), introduced 12 deputies elected by the people.

Chief Pleas
The new Chief Pleas will have to consider the seneschal's future role

Another notable change came about in 1999 when the Chief Pleas voted to allow islanders the right to decide who can inherit their property. Until then women could only inherit if there were no male heirs.

However, two events at the end of the 20th Century brought Sark's feudal system of government under the glare of the spotlight - the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and the sale of the neighbouring island of Brecqhou to the billionaire Telegraph Group owners, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, in 1993.

With the ECHR requirement to ensure laws applicable to Sark complied with the international agreement, the Chief Pleas started on the rocky road to democracy.

Proposals for reform were rejected in 2005 and 2007 until the island's historic referendum in February.

'Fair trial' breach

The Barclay twins have fought for more radical reform, claiming the remaining inherited and unelected roles of seigneur and seneschal are a breach of human rights.

On 2 December - just eight days before the election - the Barclays won a partial victory when the Civil Court of Appeal ruled the seneschal's dual role - as senior judge and president of the Chief Pleas - breached the "fair trial" provisions of Article 6 of the convention.

However, they refused to quash the Reform Law, pointing out that neither the seneschal nor the seigneur had the right to vote in the Chief Pleas.

In order to comply with international laws, the judges suggested the seneschal should withdraw from his role as president of the Chief Pleas.

The future role of seneschal could therefore be one of the early matters debated by 28 conseillers, democratically elected in Wednesday's historic election.

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