French connection: Is a Guernsey legal tradition soon to end?

Advocates and jurats in parade
Image caption Guernsey advocates taking part in a Liberation Day parade

Qualifying as a solicitor or barrister in the UK takes years of study, but imagine doing some of that in a foreign language?

For lawyers in Guernsey, who want to become advocates at the Royal Court, three months studying French law and old Norman law - in France - is obligatory.

It is a tradition that harks back to the Channel Islands' Norman past, but is now being questioned.

Some lawyers doubt whether leaving Guernsey to study in the French city of Caen is still necessary.

Image caption Advocates of the Royal Court in Guernsey are lawyers who advise clients on issues of local law and represent them here

Guernsey law differs from English law largely because of the Bailiwick's Norman heritage.

The Channel Islands were owned by the Duchy of Normandy, and passed to the English Crown when William the Conqueror became King of England in 1066.

In an arrangement between Caen University and the Guernsey Bar, signed in 1956 - but part of a tradition dating back centuries - island advocates travel to the French university to study.

Guernsey advocates perform roles that barristers and solicitors would perform in England.

'Not relevant'

But a review led by the island's most senior judge, the Bailiff Sir Richard Collas, is looking into whether today's lawyers still need to spend time in France as full-time students, which critics say is disruptive to work and family life.

The course is run in French, which can be a challenge for Guernsey lawyers who do not speak the language.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Lawyers used to be required to spend two years at Caen University, but that has lessened over the years to three months

Deputy chairman of the Guernsey Bar Council, Simon Howitt, said: "Opinions differ greatly as to whether or not it's a good thing to continue it, or a bad thing.

"I think a lot of people think there's some use to it, particularly if you do re-jig the syllabus a bit to make it a bit more relevant... in the past there has been criticism that some of the subjects covered are really not at all relevant."

Guernsey law has its roots in Norman customary law rather than English common law.

Mr Howitt said Norman law was becoming less applicable in Guernsey, as the island now tended to follow "the English model".

Image copyright 5 The Grange Advocates
Image caption Sam Steel is an advocate currently specialising in criminal defence

'Fantastic experience'

Sam Steel studied law at University College London, trained to be barrister, and recently took the course in Caen. He is now an advocate specialising in criminal defence.

"I had a fantastic experience. I tried to immerse myself in the culture and lifestyle.

"I had hired a French law tutor in the months beforehand which helped a great deal.

"My barrister friends in London were envious that I had to spend three months training in Caen, but the exams were challenging.

"I believe this training element should continue. Although the course content doesn't directly assist with my areas of specialism I left Caen with an invaluable connection to and understanding of Guernsey's unique legal history."

Neighbouring Jersey, meanwhile, removed the Caen requirement for its advocates in the 1990s.

Jean-Marie Renouf, a Jersey advocate, said many prospective advocates had work and family commitments and so moving to France for several months could be disruptive.

Image copyright Université de Caen
Image caption Students need to understand technical legal language in French

"And for the employers of those lawyers financially there seems to me to be a likelihood of a hit whilst these people are away from work, their clients, the billing and so forth."

Mr Renouf said Norman customary law was still an important part of Jersey legal training, but that it was all now taught in the island.

He said that advocates who could not speak French would have found studying in Caen "a pretty taxing experience".

Comment devenir avocat? How do you become an advocate?

  • Obtain a law degree or non-law degree with a graduate diploma in law
  • Qualify as either a solicitor or barrister
  • Complete a 'pupillage' or in-house training under the supervision of a qualified advocate
  • Pass the Guernsey Bar examinations
  • Pass the Certificat d'Etudes Juridiques et Normandes, taught in Caen
  • Apply to Guernsey's Royal Court to join the Guernsey Bar

While in the French city, Guernsey lawyers study Norman customary law, Norman institutions and some French contract law.

Students take an oral exam at the end of the three months to obtain the certificate.

Course director at Caen, Sophie Poirey, confirmed aspects of Norman law had disappeared in Guernsey, but said it was still a relevant course for lawyers and hoped it would continue.

"I've met Sir Richard, Guernsey's Bailiff, on many occasions about this.

"He came here two years ago here to Caen to meet the law faculty and showed he was keen for the Guernsey Bar to continue sending students to Caen," she said.

However Ms Poirey said discussions were taking place about adapting the course so it could continue in the future.

The Bailiff's office said there was no update on the progress of the review, but chairman of the Bar Council, advocate Mark Dunster, said there had been talks about the course being primarily delivered in Guernsey, with lecturers either visiting the island or teaching via video conference.

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