What started out as a dispute over a Guernsey shed got far larger than anyone had expected. It blew up into a European ruling on whether or the way the British government had been run for centuries was fair.
When Richard McGonnell applied to turn his Guernsey flower packing shed into a home, the bailiff refused. McGonnell appealed on the grounds that the bailiff wasn’t impartial as he had too many roles. As well as being Guernsey’s most senior judge, he can cast a deciding vote in the island legislature (the States of Guernsey) and sits on its executive.
Was it possible that someone who fulfilled all three roles could act impartially over a matter that overlapped two or more, such as a complaint against the police… or a planning application?
That was what the European Court of Human Rights was asked to decide. Whatever decision they came to would have implications beyond Guernsey. The UK’s own Lord Chancellor occupied a similar position so, naturally, Britain sent representatives to Strasbourg to argue that the status quo should be maintained.
The verdict… and the response
The judges agreed that McGonnell had been denied a fair hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal because the bailiff had been involved in drafting Guernsey’s development plan several years before. That plan had determined what could and could not be done to McGonnell’s shed. Therefore it was unfair that the bailiff should be able to rule on a subsequent planning application concerning the same building.
Crucially, the judges were ruling on a point of law rather than McGonnell’s application to convert his shed. They didn’t say whether the bailiff himself had or had not been fair, only that by someone in that position hearing the case McGonnell’s right to a fair hearing had been violated. This would have been the case in any legal territory. Ergo, it wasn’t only Guernsey but also the United Kingdom that would have to take note.
In London, the Lord Chancellor, who as well as being Britain’s most senior judge also sat in the House of Lords, said he would no longer hear cases where the outcome would either benefit or act against the government.
In 2004, the role of the Bailiff of Guernsey was trimmed to avoid any conflict of interest in cases that could impact the States of Deliberation.