The United Kingdom’s Foreign Affairs Committee is leading an inquiry into the UK’s constitutional relationship with the Virgin Islands and other overseas territories (OTs). To that end, it plans to consider how effectively the UK manages its responsibilities towards OTs and “how it envisages their future.”

The VI is at a crossroads, with its relationship with the UK in the spotlight. Let’s consider the relationship between the UK and crown dependencies (CDs) as a model for a new one with the OTs.

Although our historical and constitutional backgrounds are very different, I propose that a framework agreement on the relationship between the UK and CDs should provide a starting point for a similar shared framework for the OTs in the Caribbean (Anguilla, the VI, the Cayman Islands and Montserrat), advancing their aspirations for greater self-rule while preserving their protection by the UK from malevolent human and environmental forces.


Crown dependencies

The CDs are made up of Jersey and Guernsey (the Channel Islands), located between southeast England and France; and the Isle of Man, located in the Irish Sea between northwest England and Ireland. Collectively, the CDs are known as the British Islands.

The Channel Islands were annexed by the Duke of Normandy in 933. Since 1290, they have been governed as the Bailiwick of Jersey (the island of Jersey and uninhabited islets) and the Bailiwick of Guernsey (the islands of Guernsey, Sark, Alderney and some islets).

Each bailiwick is a CD headed by a bailiff, with a lieutenant governor representing the crown and with its own courts, legal and health care systems, postal and telecommunications systems, immigration policy, and citizens’ “local status.”

On the Isle of Man, the British monarch is Lord of Mann, a title held before 1765 by Norse, Scottish and English kings and nobles.


Relationship with UK

Acts of the British Parliament and the UK’s international treaties don’t usually apply to the crown dependencies without their consent unless explicitly stated — although they may be so extended by an order in council if requested by the insular authorities, which usually prefer to pass localised versions and may separately conclude treaties with foreign governments (except on matters reserved to the Crown (i.e. acting through the UK government)) limited to defence, citizenship and diplomatic representation. The islands are responsible for their own post and telecommunications.

The States of Jersey Law 2005 established that all UK acts and orders in council were to be referred to the states, giving them greater freedom of action in international affairs.

With the development of financial services industries and international relations, they have signed various treaties and conventions concerning tax, finance, environment, trade and other matters not relating directly to defence and international representation. The UK recently agreed to the CIs negotiating directly with France on topics such as French nuclear activities in the region, on which the UK holds such different views from the bailiwicks that it feels unable to represent them itself.



In 2007 and 2008, each CD and the UK established a framework for the development of the CDs’ international identity in order to clarify their constitutional relationship. Under these frameworks, methods are evolving to help achieve mutual interests — agreeing, for instance, that the UK has no democratic accountability in and for the CDs, which have their own elected assemblies.

Regarding the UK’s responsibility for each CD’s international relations, it is understood that the UK will undertake the following commitments, among others:

  • to avoid acting internationally on behalf of the CDs without prior consultation;
  • to support the principle of each CD further developing its international identity;
  • to recognise that the interests of each CD may differ from its own;
  • to seek to represent any differing interests when acting in an international capacity;
  • to recognise that each CD has an international identity different from that of the UK; and
  • to play a role of support, not interference, in helping the development of each CD’s international identity.


CDs’ commitments

Meanwhile, each CD undertakes the following commitments, among others:

  • to commit itself to open, effective and meaningful dialogue on any issue that may come to affect the constitutional relationship;
  • to clearly identify its priorities for delivery of its international obligations and agreements so that these are understood and can be taken into account;
  • to work with the UK to resolve or clarify any differences which may arise between their respective interests; and
  • to work with the UK to promote the legitimate status of each CD as a responsible, stable and mature democracy with its own broad policy interests and which is willing to engage positively with the international community across a wide range of issues.


Ministry of Justice

In 2010 the UK Ministry of Justice stated that it was only responsible for the constitutional relationships with the CDs and that other ministries were responsible for engaging with their opposite numbers in the CDs on their respective policy areas.

In March 2014, the UK government responded to a Ministry of Justice select committee’s report titled “Crown Dependencies: developments since 2010” by identifying key developments since then, including the publication of a factsheet summarising their constitutional relationship and practical guidance for government departments on how to work with the islands.

It conceded that they could explore ways to evolve the constitutional relationship further, but the issue must be looked at as a whole, paying particular regard to the responsibilities that would accompany any move towards greater autonomy, with limits to what they should expect and limited scope for the UK to reduce scrutiny of their legislation and compliance with international obligations.