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States of Deliberation - History

A distinctive and important feature of sovereignty in a community is the emergence of its own parliament.  Laws, privileges, practices and usages in nations with largely unwritten constitutions develop over centuries. It is largely by observing practice that one can discover how Guernsey's parliament developed.

It is believed that the States of Deliberation existed in some form in the 15th century and perhaps even earlier.  The history of the States of Deliberation in its early days is clouded in some obscurity.

A document in 1481 suggested that there was an assembly or parliament in Guernsey at that time, another document suggests, though less strongly, there was one about 1429 but the assembly was first recorded as bearing the name Les Etats (the States) in 1538.   It may be that the States developed out of the Court of Chief Pleas or that it grew up alongside the Court of Chief Pleas.  The assembly of three different estates was the origin of the term States which is used to this day.  The three estates were the Royal Court, the Clergy and the Constables representing the ten parishes.  The Bailiff was always the President of the States.

In the 1600s the States assembly was convened to elect Jurats to serve for the remainder of their lives.  By the 1700s the three estates assembled for such purposes as agreeing addresses to the monarch, dealing with public grievances, raising taxes for a public purpose etc.  Meetings were infrequent in those days. 

The States of Deliberation are the legislature and government of Guernsey.  The Royal Court sitting as a Court of Chief Pleas had power to legislate in certain areas locally but at much the same time the States assembled and also had power to legislate in certain areas by Ordinance.  The precise division lines and the dates when the legislative powers emerged and developed are not entirely clear.  It would seem that from time to time the Royal Court asserted its power to legislate whilst not acknowledging any power vested in the States to do so.

In the year 1605 we know that the States were revived by an Order in Council on the petition of the inhabitants and this Order in Council referred to "the ancient use and authority of assembling the three States of the Island". 

It was not until the late 1700s that the States undertook more public work and maintenance of the highways.  More revenue was required and permanent committees were created.  It was felt that the Constables of the ten parishes provided a useful connection between the affairs of the parishes and the affairs of the island.  It was considered that it had the effect of knitting the island community together and it brought to the States persons who had a very intimate knowledge of their constituents.

Interestingly the evolution of the States is dealt with by the Royal Commissioners in their Second Report on The State of the Criminal Law in the Channel Islands in 1848.  A gap between meetings of more than a year in those days was not unusual. It is instructive to note how infrequently the States assembled in the early 19th century.  By way of example the Billet D'Etats between 1825 and 1836, an eleven year period, are printed in total on fewer pages than the number of pages contained in an average length Billet for a single month nowadays.

In 1899 the States met 10 times, but the number of items for consideration, were few.  Debate was not prolonged. 

The activity and power of the States has increased persistently over the last century.  Progressively the States have taken over more and more administrative functions from the parish authorities and legislated more frequently in more areas and in greater volume.  A single Order in Council volume for the period 1869 - 1894, a 25 year period, contains fewer pages than the pages of Orders in Council for a single year nowadays.

It was not until the year 1900 that Deputies were for the first time elected to the States of Deliberation.  Nine Deputies were elected to the States on an island-wide basis.  In 1920, the system moved on with elections for 28 Deputies in five electoral districts.  In 1949, the figures changes to 33 Deputies in 10 electoral districts.  A further change in 2000 saw the number of Deputies increase to 45 in the same number of electoral districts, but in 2004, the number of electoral districts was reduced to 7.

Existing institutions were adapted and new ones created in order to cope with German Occupation in 1940 - 1945.  Almost all States decisions were delegated to a Controlling Committee which was in effect a cabinet of ministers each with executive responsibilities for his own department.  The public sector of the economy grew enormously.  The Royal Court requested the States to draw up Projets de Loi, the Law Officers ratified them, and the Bailiff as Civil Lieutenant Governor promulgated them.

On 4th July 1945, shortly after liberation of the Island, that system of government was ended.  The States concluded that although the cabinet or departmental system had its advantages in wartime, government by numerous committees each directly responsible to the States was much preferred in peacetime.  It was felt that administrative work should be spread over many States members instead of concentrating in the hands of a few.  However an Advisory Council was created.