Monday, 10 August 2009

Over-hanging branches, ceremonial axes and lots of walking

If you wish to find the past preserved, follow the million feet of the crowd.  At the worst the uneducated only wear
down old things by sheer walking.  But the educated kick them down out of sheer culture (G.K. Chesterton)
Recently Constable Peter Hanning has written to the JEP in indignation that the paper chose to mock the Visite Royale, where the Royal Court, twice a year, goes out and about, and where judges and officials examine roads and footpaths for overhanging hedges, trees and other obstructions.

THE origins of the Visite Royale may have disappeared into the mists of time, but that does not mean that the twice-yearly visits to the parishes are an anachronism. I am saddened that your reporter (JEP, 6 August) was unable to take the Royal Court seriously...What is the most serious official occasion for a parish every six years was reduced to trivia. There was no mention of the court checking that all parish accounting and monies are correctly handled, or of the Honorary Police report - serious matters to parishioners. Had your reporter taken the trouble to attend the whole visit, or even read the guide notes with photographs provided, he would have seen that the second stop related not to a hedge, but to landslips and the ensuing dangers to road users. The last stop did not concern a drain, but the prevention of repeated flooding of a number of houses, also important to  parishioners.  (1)

However well meaning the letter, it is flawed in a number of places. The former Bailiff, Sir Philip Bailhache noted several of these. Take the position of hedges, for example, and any obstructions on Parish roads:

As Le Gros observed in 1943 a six-yearly visit to a parish necessarily means that many roads will not be traversed by the ambulatory court for 40 or 50 years or more. It may be noted however that the parochial authorities have a continuing duty through the biannual visite du branchage to ensure not only the maintenance and upkeep of the roads in the parish but also to prevent encroachments.  (2)

Sir Philip also took apart the accounting function of the Visite, whose members, after all are trained lawyers, not accountants:

It could also be argued that the minute examination of parochial accounts is no longer necessary. In former times an inspection by the Court no doubt served as a useful deterrent to the misappropriation of public monies. But in these times parochial accounts are invariably audited by professional accountants providing at least as adequate a safeguard. (2)

With regard to Mr Henning's argument that the Visite attended matters of importance such as landslips and flooding of houses, can it really be the case that these important matters have to wait at least six years before they are attended to? Obviously not, and despite their importance, they would certainly come under the jurisdiction of the Parish authorities (with the Parish road committee) or the States departments such as Transport and Technical Services (in the case of flooding and proper drainage). Indeed, from Le Geyt's calculation, it might not even be a six year wait but a forty year wait. The argument by the Constable of St Saviour simply cannot not bear the weight put upon it.

Sir Philip did however suggest in 1998 that there could well be a place for examination and supervision, and it would be interesting to know if this was in place, and is included in "the Honorary police report" described by Mr Hanning:

One aspect of parochial administration has however expanded and might merit periodic supervision by the Court. Various statutes now empower centeniers to inflict summarily small fines at the parish hall for minor infractions in certain circumstances. Records of these decisions are kept. It is submitted that the Visite Royale might usefully examine these records so as to ensure that centeniers are exercising the powers appropriately and lawfully. Customs which serve no practical purpose can eventually become empty vessels; better by far that they should adapt so as to provide both a link with the past and a useful service to the present.(2)

But that does not give a good argument for the court having a wander round leafy parish lanes. Is that an anachronism? Yes, but I would argue that its very triviality, that it cannot really accomplish much in the time, is not important.

What is important is that the Court, with all the lawyers and officials, should get out of the courtroom, and into the countryside, and have some fresh air outside of the stuffy confines of the Royal Court building (with what seems to be continually malfunctioning air conditioning). And if it happens to be pouring with rain, wet and windy, they should still go out, in all weathers, so that the photographer can take pictures of the judges under umbrellas in all their finery, getting slightly wet. 

To take stock of a tree with a tape measure is an bit of a joke, but occasionally it is good for judges to get out and about, and do something ever so slightly silly in the eyes of the world; it is because it really cannot be taken seriously, but is taken seriously with due pomp and ceremony, that it is funny, and should continue. Sometimes it is important that even lawyers should have time to play.



Clameur de Haro said...

One suspects the ratepayers might take the view that the auditors' annual certification of the accuracy of the Parish accounts is rather more important than their cursory and largely ceremonial inspection by the Royal Court every six years, but there you go...

CdeH has always found it amusing that at the end of the Visite, the Parish Rector lunches with the Court, rather than the Parish Authority. Ministering to the greater need for spiritual guidance, or enlightened gastronomic self-interest?

Nancy said...

I'd quite like to see some of these types bring along a couple of spades and some sandbags for an on-the-spot fix of 'matters of importance' then the whole thing might seem a little more worthwhile. I'm sure 'Tradition' originally had its own function to serve.