In a curious survival of the kind that, inevitably, fascinates ecclesiastical law geeks like me, the Ecclesiastical Court of Guernsey has retained a function under the Ecclesiastical Court (Jurisdiction) (Bailiwick of Guernsey) Law 1994 which is more usually regarded as the province of the secular courts: proving wills and issuing Letters of Administration in deceased estates. Wills and probate account for most of the work of the modern Court: several hundred such grants – known generically as Grants of Representation – are issued each year, although under the Law of 1994 the Court lost its jurisdiction to hear disputed probate cases. The Ecclesiastical Court, like the Royal Court, is a court of record, which means that all Grants of Representation must be both prepared for issue in original form to the applicants and copied and indexed for the Court’s own records and for the public record held at the Greffe – the Court’s Registry.
The Court sits every Friday (except Good Friday and the Fridays closest to Christmas Day) and is usually presided over by the Dean of Guernsey acting under a Commission from the Bishop of Winchester or, in his absence, by one of several Commissaries-Delegate. The Commissaries-Delegate, appointed by the Dean, are the two Vice-Deans (incumbents of other Guernsey parishes) and one or two retired clergy. The Court is administered by its Registrar (otherwise known as the Greffier), assisted by two staff. The Registrar is appointed by the Dean and in modern times has usually been an advocate of the Royal Court. The Registrar also assists the Dean on a variety of issues, as well as with formulating policy and guidance notes for the clergy on matters such as the faculty jurisdiction. A committee of the States of Guernsey investigated the issue of the Court’s probate jurisdiction between 1979 and 1985 and accepted that the Court was administering wills and probate efficiently and cost-effectively, concluding that “the fact that the system is an anachronism is not of itself a reason for change”.
ITV News reports, however, that not everyone is happy with the current situation; and a number of Guernésiais are seeking change. At the moment, a portion of the probate fee goes to the Deanery and is passed on to the Deanery Fund – whether or not the deceased was a member of the Church or, indeed, religious in any way at all – and the campaigners are asking the States of Guernsey to take over the administration of probate.
The States’ Policy and Resources Committee is currently reviewing
“the extent to which the Ecclesiastical Court’s involvement in matters of probate affects the perception of Guernsey in the wider world and, in particular, whether it discourages investment in the island. It will also consider how probate is dealt with elsewhere, the potential options for the island and the merits and disadvantages of those options.”
Deputy Al Brouard, a member of the Committee, said when the terms of reference of the review were announced:
“The jurisdiction of the Ecclesiastical Court has not been reviewed since 1985 and, given the changes in society since then, the Policy and Resources Committee has agreed that the time is right to review the appropriateness of the Court’s jurisdiction continuing to include matters of probate.”
According to ITV News, the States has announced that the Policy and Resources Committee will publish a “policy letter” on the matter in the next couple of weeks outlining its proposals for the future of probate, which will then be debated by the States.
As to the ecclesiastical status of Guernsey and Jersey, they remain legally under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester but on 25 March 2014 the Bishop of Winchester delegated to the Bishop of Dover the episcopal oversight and functions reserved or assigned to him in all ecclesiastical legislation, canons, customs and protocols as apply in the Deanery of Guernsey. The Bishop of Dover exercises the episcopal functions delegated to him in canonical obedience to the Archbishop of Canterbury and all clergy in the Deanery owe canonical obedience to the Archbishop.