In the past the office was used by some as a licence to operate one-man rule. Such abuses are long gone, but the perception that the Bailiff exercises too much power with too little responsibility is alive and well here in the 21st century.
In lodging a vote of no confidence in our present Bailiff, Sir Philip Bailhache, Deputy Shona Pitman focuses on incidents which, she alleges, amount to lapses of judgment.
It would, however, be remarkable if she were not also attempting to revitalise the old argument that the Bailiff’s dual role – as chief justice and president of the States Assembly – undermines Island democracy.
Although the Bailiff will be unable to defend himself when the States debate the no-confidence motion, his full record and reputation will, without doubt, be more than enough to keep him very well clear of the ignominy of the House as a whole registering dissatisfaction with his performance.
As far as the separation of legislative and judicial power is concerned, we – and States Members – must look not to theory but to practice. Abstract political ideals are all very well, but a search for modern examples of the Bailiff’s twin responsibilities causing tangible problems would be fruitless.
Although the Bailiff, as chief judge in the Royal Court, is a figure of great authority and considerable power, the role of president of the States is hedged by significant limits. The Bailiff has no vote – other than a casting vote which, by convention, is always for the status quo – and no right to speak in debate. His powers of control are no greater than those of the speakers of many other legislatures.
Meanwhile, the House will be aware that any successful attack on an individual Bailiff would seriously undermine functions of the office which have no direct connection with the Royal Court or the States. The Bailiff is the Island’s civic head and, more importantly, the person appointed by our Head of State, the Queen, as a vital link between Crown interests and insular affairs.
If Deputy Pitman is to be given any credit for lodging her vote of no confidence it will be on the grounds that she has been brave – or reckless – enough to launch an attack on what most States Members will regard as an honourable institution whose present incumbent is an honourable man. Her reward, on the other hand, is likely to be defeat by an embarrassing margin.