The Channel Islands are a group of islands in the English Channel to the west of Normandy, France. They are ruled by the British monarch but are not part of the United Kingdom, and have never been members of the European Union (they were treated as EU members for the purpose of trade of goods during the time the UK was in the EU, and post-Brexit, goods from the Channel islands are counted as coming from the UK for the purposes of EU law). They are also part of a currency union with the UK. Their legal status is similar to that of the Isle of Man.
As well as tourist attractions, the islands are known for offshore finance. They enjoy a large degree of self-government, although the British crown has the right to intervene "in the interests of good government", and appoints some judges. The UK is in charge of defence and international relations. The islands are also somewhat backward in things like democracy, rights for women, and LGBT rights; Sark decided to abolish its feudal system in the early 21st century. However, they have now acceded to the European Convention on Human Rights and introduced gay marriage and abortion and other marks of a civilised society.
Technically they are divided into two wholly-separate administrative units: the Bailiwick of Jersey (which is pretty much just the island of Jersey, along with some rocks) and the Bailiwick of Guernsey, which is divided into three units, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark; the other small inhabited islands of Herm, Jethou, and Brecqhou are part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey too. (There are also some French islands nearby, known in English as The Chausey Islands.) Legally they largely operate on customary law (coutume) (what's legal or illegal is what's always been that way), and the legal systems of various islands have preserved various bizarre practices.
In modern history they are mainly known for being invaded by Nazi Germany during World War Two, suffering many of the same atrocities as mainland Europe. Sark was also briefly invaded in 1990 by a lone gunman.
They came into the possession of British monarchs when William the Conqueror became king of England in 1066, and in 1259 the English and French agreed that they would remain a British territory. Since then the French have invaded a few times, although between 1483 and 1689 a Papal Bull guaranteed their neutrality.
The islands have no written constitution, but a legendary document, the Constitutions of King John, supposedly given by King John after 1204, is sometimes referred to. Jersey wiki Jerripedia claims of the alleged constitutions, "This is either a fabrication, or a considerable exaggeration of what happened. At the time John was determined to regain his former French possessions and fully intended that the islands would again come under the control of the Duchy, so it is unlikely that he would have made any sweeping changes to their status. It is more likely that he laid down a few rules about how the islands should conduct themselves in isolation from Normandy." This source traces the myth of the constitutions to Philippe Falle's An account of the Island of Jersey, the greatest of those islands that are now the only remainder of the English dominions in France, with a new and accurate map of the Island in 1694.
Some of Guernsey's constitutional status is set out in the Precepte d'Assize, a legal judgment from 1441; there were also various royal charters issued to the islands over the centuries.
As seafaring islands, they had links with the British Empire, such as in the Newfoundland fisheries, and New Jersey was named by George Carteret, Bailiff of Jersey, in the 1640s. They also played host to many French refugees, including royalists following the French Revolution, Victor Hugo after people had read Les Miserables, and the iconic lesbian photographer/sculptor/author Claude Cahun.
World War Two
In World War II they were occupied by Nazi Germany from 30 June 1940, making them the only part of the British isles to suffer this fate. The British government realised that the Channel Islands could not be defended when France fell, and evacuated all their troops. Prior to the invasion varying numbers of people were evacuated from the different islands, with Alderney almost emptied, while most of the population of Sark chose to stay.
The Germans transformed the islands into fortresses and built particularly extensive fortifications and a concentration camp on Alderney. Residents suffered similarly to those in France or other parts of occupied western Europe, with strict restrictions on life, and with some sent to concentration camps and German prisons. Herm island was used to film a propaganda film, The Invasion of the Isle of Wight and to practice amphibious landings. There was a small resistance, which included the Guernsey Underground News Service, or GUNS, which distributed news from free British sources; members including journalist Frank Falla were caught and sent to prison in Germany where 5 of 11 Guernsean inmates died.
The islands were only freed from German control on 9 May, 1945, at the end of the war in Europe. Clearly they were not a British priority.
After the war, the islands switched from fishing and agriculture to tourism and offshore finance (see below).
Jersey is the most populous island, with around 99,000 inhabitants. Its parliament is the States Assembly, with 49 members, and 5 non-voting crown appointees; they claim its history goes back to 933 when Jersey came under control of the Duchy of Normandy. Jersey has its own legal, administrative, and fiscal systems, distinct from the other islands and the British mainland. Its legal system is a mix of French and English influences, and until the 20th century many laws were drafted in French; French is still a legal language although English is more often used. However despite reforms in recent years, there are still criticism, with three different classes of assembly members with different-sized constituencies, and no separation of powers between courts and legislature due to the Bailiff, head of the judiciary, also chairing the Assembly; organisation Reform Jersey is pushing for equal-sized constituencies, proportional representation, online voting, and an elected Speaker of the Assembly.
It has a flat income tax of 20%, which was literally set by the Nazis (replacing an earlier system). In 2008 it introduced a 3% goods and services tax, now 5%. Its currency is the pound, and it prints banknotes which can be exchanged for British pounds sterling, although Euros are also widely accepted.
While Jersey had long been a home for the rich, its serious attempts at tax haven status began in the 1950s, when taxes in the UK were high, notably income tax and death duties; Jersey had no inheritance tax at all, meaning the rich could die there and keep all their money! It rapidly developed a significant banking industry, and acted as a place to hide money for various dodgy people, including Soviet Communist Party leaders anticipating the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980s; Russian oligarchs post-Soviet Union; and South Africans keen to evade apartheid-era sanctions. Its attempts at being a tax haven ran into problems in the 2010s when it ran out of money and risked bankruptcy. But they found the money somewhere.
Jersey joined the UN Convention on Women's Rights in 2021. Abortion is legal in the first 12 weeks, and in 2021 they removed requirements for a one-week waiting time. It incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into law in 2006.
Investigations in the early 21st century uncovered evidence of massive abuses at the former Haut de la Garenne children's home and Sacre Coeur orphanage on the island. While initial fears of murders proved unfounded, there was evidence of sexual abuse, including repeated rape and physical abuse including children having their mouths washed out with carbolic soap and being flogged with stinging nettles; prolific British sexual abuser Jimmy Savile was implicated, as was a former Jersey senator, Wilfred Krichefski, who had died by the time of the investigation. Some of the cases went back to the German occupation, with children being taken from their parents during the occupation or fathered by German soldiers and subsequently taken into care.
Guernsey is the second most populous island, with a population of 63,000. Its parliament is the States of Guernsey (otherwise known as the States of Deliberation), which includes representatives from Alderney, and two non-voting Crown appointments. Guernsey and other smaller islands are grouped together as the Bailiwick of Guernsey. The Bailiff of Guernsey is speaker of Guernsey's parliament and head of Guernsey's judiciary. Of the other islands in the Bailiwick, Alderney's administration is closely linked with that of Guernsey, while Sark has more self-government.
Until 2012 it was a haven for health woo merchants, as its lax laws allowed one to make almost any health claim about any product, with companies such as Healthspan repeatedly coming under attack from British regulators; eventually the island decided to cut down on the snake oil.
In 2006 the administration incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into Guernsey law. A 2020 report recommended extending abortion to 24 weeks, with no limit for significant foetal abnormality.
The parliament of Sark and Brecqhuo is the Chief Pleas, sitting in Sark, although on some subjects Guernsey legislates and Sark approves. In 2006, it said farewell to the ancient feudal government under which 40 landowning families ruled the islands, and instead a somewhat more representative legislature was created. Sark has no income tax, capital gains tax, inheritance tax, or VAT/sales tax, but there are a few taxes including a wealth tax (the Personal Capital Tax), a tax on visitors, property tax, and property transfer tax. Guernsey is responsible for some things including company law, criminal law, and policing.
In 1990 an unemployed French nuclear physicist (!) André Gardes attempted to invade Sark. He turned up in battle dress carrying a semi-automatic weapon and put up posters announcing his plans. The island's volunteer policeman was able to tackle and disarm him; he was sentenced to seven days in jail.
Politically the islands are somewhat backward, remaining essentially feudal into the 21st century, with the Seigneur the feudal lord. In 1999 its inheritance law was changed so that women or younger sons could inherit property rather than it passing entirely to the oldest son. Until 2006, its parliament (the Chief Pleas) comprised 40 landowners who got their seats by right and 12 elected members; this was changed to 28 elected members, one hereditary (the Seigneur), and one appointed for life (the Seneschal). There are complaints that this new system is still a bit undemocratic.
Exciting aspects of the Sark legal system include the practice of Clameur de haro: if you think you are being wronged by someone you recite the Lord's Prayer (in French, obvs), and cry out "Haro, Haro, Haro! À mon aide mon Prince, on me fait tort!" The person you shout at must then stop what they're doing and you must file a legal case in 24 hours or else they'll start again. This has been occasionally used in recent years: in 1970 it was invoked in a dispute over a garden wall, and has also been used in other planning disputes. But it was called out again in 2021 by a woman disputing her eviction. (There seem to be a lot of people claiming that some particular case is the first occurrence for 20 years; treat such claims with suspicion.)
Until recently Sark had its own language, Sercquiais, a dialect of Norman French, similar to the Jèrriais formerly spoken on Jersey.
A small island, 2.2 by 0.9 km. Cars and bicycles are banned but quad bikes and tractors are ok. It was once a monastic centre, with St Tugual (Tugwal) setting up a monastery reputedly in the 6th century. It was invaded by Germany during World War Two but they didn't do much except make a propaganda film called The Invasion of the Isle of Wight. (They never invaded the Isle of Wight.) British commandos invaded on 27 February 1943 but didn't find anybody there (they expected both shepherds and German soldiers) and seemingly went home. It is entirely administered by Guernsey.
Brecqhou is officially part of Sark and the Bailiwick of Guernsey. It is governed by the Chief Pleas in Sark. Geographically it is very close to Sark. In 1993 it was bought by the Barclay brothers, David and Frederick Barclay, owners of the Daily Telegraph, and they pushed for autonomy from Sark, so they can set up their own Bond-villain-style lair. They have been involved in a long series of disputes with locals. David died in January 2021.
A small private island near Herm, to which it was reportedly connected until a storm in 709.
Lihou is connected to Guernsey by a tidal causeway, and has only one house, for the nature warden. It was formerly a centre of seaweed harvesting (for fertiliser) but now its main industry is eco-tourism.
There have been mutterings of independence whenever the British government has threatened the Channel Islands' freedom to do what they like. In 1969, plans by the Labour government to clarify the islands' constitutional position led to one such threat. A working group in 2005-8 considered the practicalities of independence for Jersey and saw no reason why not, although they say they're not actively seeking independence, just preparing for any eventuality.
In 2012, Jersey's assistant chief minister Philip Bailhache threatened independence. However it is unclear how this would affect its tax haven status: being part of Britain provides some stability (including against bank collapse), and when the Bahamas became fully independent in the 1970s, a lot of money decamped to the Cayman Islands, still a British territory. For this reason, some have questioned whether it would really make a success of independence. Nonetheless, Bailhache again threatened independence in 2018 due to Brexit.
The French government has shown no sign of wanting them back, but the French have occasionally blockaded them or threatened actions as a result of lesser disputes. It's maybe more useful having a little bit of Britain nearby that you can annoy, rather than absorbing them into France.
- Frank Falla Archive, commemorating victims of the Nazis from the Channel Islands
- Overview on financial crime in the Channel Islands, Thomson Reuters
- Jersey's relationship with the UK and EU, Government of Jersey
- Roots of Channel Islands' uncertain relationship with UK go back to 1066, The Guardian, 27 June 2012
- Background briefing on the Crown Dependencies: Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, Ministry of Justice
- About the Channel Islands, PwC
- Sark bids a reluctant farewell to more than 400 years of feudalism, The Guardian, 9 Mar 2006
- Constitution, Jerripedia/The Island Wiki, accessed 1 June 2021
- Documents of Constitutional Importance for the Channel Islands, Gordon Dawes, The Jersey & Guernsey Law Review, 2015
- A Short History of New Jersey, New Jersey state government website
- Claude Cahun, Jersey Heritage
- The Nazi Occupation of the Islands of Guernsey, Historic UK
- The Channel Islands' victims and survivors of Nazi persecution, Emma Shaw and Gilly Carr, Cambridge University
- History of the States Assembly, Jersey States Assembly website
- Reforming our Democracy and forging a new 'Jersey Way', Reform Jersey
- Calculating your tax (yearly tax assessment), gov.je
- Why Is the United Kingdom's Jersey Considered a Tax Haven?, Investopedia
- Good to Know, Jersey.com
- The fall of Jersey: how a tax haven goes bust, The Guardian, 8 Dec 2015
- Leading on Human Rights: UK extends membership of UN Women’s Convention to Jersey, Leaders Council, 2021
- Jersey abolishes unnecessary wait times for abortions, Humanists UK, March 25, 2021
- Human Rights, Jersey government website
- How 'house of horror' investigation brought Jersey abuse to light, The Guardian, 3 July 2017
- Guernsey health supplement industry facing regulatory crackdown, The Guardian, 28 Jun 2012
- Human Rights in Guernsey, Guernsey government website
- Guernsey abortion laws to be 'modernised' by States, BBC News, 24 June 2020
- Alderney, the unlikely hub for a global, online gambling industry, The Guardian, 4 July 2012
- Sark Fire Service
- There once was a one man invasion of the island of Sark, Today I Found Out, 2012
- Lost world: the last days of feudal Sark, The Independent, 22 September 2011
- Clameur de Haro raised for the first time in 20 years, Bailiwick Express, 27 Feb 2021
- How a Guernsey woman brought a construction project to a grinding halt with an ancient plea, Quartz, 17 Aug 2018
- Jèrriais, BBC
- History of Herm, The Sarnian
- Minister in row with Barclay brothers over Sark, The Guardian, 28 June 2012
- Idyllic Lihou Island gets new warden, BBC, 12 April 2019
- Jersey (Constitution), Hansard vol 777, debated 7 Feb 1969
- Second interim report of the constitution review group, December 2007, presented 27 June 2008, archived at archive.org
- Jersey threatens to break with UK over tax backlash, The Guardian, 26 Jun 2012
- Jersey is bluffing: independence would ruin its tax haven status, Nicholas Shaxson, The Guardian, 28 June 2021
- Independence ‘may be only option if Brexit deal is bad’, Jersey Evening Post, 23 Jun 2018
- France warns UK of ‘retaliation’ as Jersey braces for blockade in fishing row, The Guardian, 29 Sep 2021
- France threatens to cut off power to Jersey in post-Brexit fishing row, The Guardian, 4 May 2021