How autonomous are the Crown Dependencies?

Today (July 5) is Tynwald Day on the Isle of Man, one of three Crown Dependencies in the British Isles. Following a religious service at the Royal Chapel in St John’s, members of Tynwald (the Isle’s Parliament) process to Tynwald Hill, an ancient open-air site. The Lieutenant Governor then presides, putting Acts of Tynwald into effect and receiving Petitions for Redress.

The Isle of Man’s legislative system was introduced in around 800 AD, making it (according to Tynwald): “the oldest parliament in the world with an unbroken existence.” This and the Tynwald Day ceremony underline the Crown Dependencies’ unique position as neither part of the United Kingdom nor the European Union.

This Insight looks at the constitutional status of the three Crown Dependencies, their system of governance, how UK legislation is extended to them and their international representation.

What are the Crown Dependencies?

The Crown Dependencies are the Isle of Man, the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey (which includes Alderney and Sark). They are self-governing entities, over which the Crown has certain responsibilities. The three Dependencies each have their own political, legal and fiscal systems, separate from the UK’s.

The Queen is the Head of State of each island and is represented in each by a Lieutenant Governor. In the Channel Islands Her Majesty is styled Duke of Normandy, and in the Isle of Man, Lord of Mann.

Constitutional status of the Crown Dependencies

The 1973 report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution referred to the constitutional position of the Crown Dependencies as “unique”:

“In some respects they are like miniature states with wide powers of self-government, while their method of functioning through committees is much more akin to that of United Kingdom local authorities.”

A 2010 Justice Committee report highlighted “their essential independence from the UK [and] their independence from each other”. The same report emphasised that the Crown Dependencies’ relationship was with the Crown rather than the UK.

The Crown Dependencies are not represented in the UK Parliament and their relationship with the European Union is largely limited to membership of the EU Customs Union. Although self-governing, the UK Parliament can legislate: “for the Crown Dependencies in the areas of defence, nationality, citizenship, Succession to the Throne, extradition and broadcasting, by implication limiting the competence of the Island jurisdictions in these areas”.

Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man and the Republic of Ireland, together with the UK, comprise the Common Travel Area. All three Dependencies attend meetings of the British-Irish Council. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is their highest court of appeal.

The Isle of Man makes an annual contribution to the UK for defence and common services, including overseas representation, but the Channel Islands do not.

Government and legislation

The unicameral States of Guernsey is the Parliament of Guernsey, comprising 38 People’s Deputies and 2 Alderney Deputies. Some of its enactments apply to Alderney and Sark as ‘Bailiwick-wide legislation’, with the consent of the States of Alderney or Sark Chief Pleas.

Jersey’s States Assembly is also unicameral, consisting of eight Senators, 29 Deputies and 12 Connétables.

The Isle of Man Parliament, known as Tynwald, consists of two branches: the Legislative Council and the House of Keys.

Principal legislation made by Dependency legislatures requires Royal Assent. The Ministry of Justice examines each piece of legislation to ensure there is no conflict with the UK’s international obligations (including the European Convention on Human Rights) or with any “fundamental constitutional principles”.

The UK Justice Secretary can recommend that Royal Assent be withheld, although this is rare. For Channel Island legislation, assent is granted by the Queen in Council. For Isle of Man legislation, the granting of assent is delegated to the Lieutenant Governor for many “non-reserved” purposes.

Extension of UK legislation to the Crown Dependencies

In contrast with the British Overseas Territories, on which the UK Parliament has unlimited power to legislate, UK primary legislation does not ordinarily apply to the Crown Dependencies. It can, however, be extended to them if UK Government departments consider it necessary or if they have received a request from a Dependency to do so. This usually happens via an Order in Council.

Ministry of Justice guidance states that UK departments must consult the Crown Dependencies at the earliest opportunity if an extension is under consideration and should not be included in a Bill without their prior agreement.

But this is a convention rather than a matter of law. The Royal Commission on the Constitution concluded that: “in the eyes of the courts (the UK) Parliament has a paramount power to legislate for the Islands in any circumstances.” It stated this should be restricted to considerations of “good government”. In other words, the UK Parliament should only legislate following a fundamental breakdown in public order or endemic corruption in the government, legislature or judiciary of one of the Dependencies.

Recently, some MPs argued that the Crown Dependencies ought to be compelled to publish public registers of beneficial interest under the “good government” argument. The Dependencies’ Chief Ministers warned this would “seriously undermine our longstanding and close relationship with the UK and the crown.”

Primary legislation passed in the UK and extended to the Channel Islands requires the resulting Order in Council to be registered in the Islands’ respective courts. This is not the case in the Isle of Man.

Crown Dependencies and international representation

The Crown Dependencies are not recognised internationally as sovereign states in their own right but as “territories for which the United Kingdom is responsible.” As such they cannot sign international agreements under their own aegis unless the UK’s enables them to do so. The Dependencies can, for example, be issued with ’letters of entrustment’ under certain circumstances, allowing them to enter into agreements with third countries regarding taxation.

The current relationship between the Crown Dependencies and the European Union (EU) is based on Protocol 3 of the UK’s 1972 Treaty of Accession. Under this, the Crown Dependencies are effectively part of the EU customs territory. When the UK leaves the EU, Protocol 3 will no longer apply.

Further reading


About the author: David Torrance is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in devolution and the constitution


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Image: LIGHT HOUSE / Brad Higham / CC BY-NC 2.0