Chancery, Court of
By the 14th cent. common law had become the ordinary law of the land administered through courts independent of the crown, staffed by professional lawyers. Yet the king retained the power to administer justice outside the regular system if an aggrieved party could not obtain justice from common law. Petitions were presented to the king in council setting out the details of the case and asking for relief. By the end of the 14th cent. petitions began to be addressed to the chancellor direct and by the end of the 15th cent. he was sitting alone hearing petitions and issuing decrees in his own name.
The rules of common law were bound by tradition and statute. The chancellor was not bound by such rigid procedures. Procedure was simple and informal. The Chancery could sit anywhere, at any time, and once the chancellor felt he had enough information he would arrive at a decision. It was quick and inexpensive justice which especially benefited the poor and the weak. As Lord Ellesmere explained in 1615, ‘men's actions are so diverse and infinite that it is impossible to make a general law which may aptly meet with every particular … The office of the chancellor is to correct men's consciences for frauds, breaches of trust, wrongs and oppressions of what nature soever they may be, and to soften and mollify the extremity of the law.’ Business increased steadily and by the 16th cent. the court was overwhelmed with petitions.
The chancellor's form of justice acquired the name of ‘equity’. Equity was not a new concept but the difference was that equity became distinct from common law. At first equity was not seen as a rival to common law, but resentment arose over the growth of Chancery business. In 1616, clashes over jurisdiction occurred between Coke, chief justice of King's Bench, and Chancellor Ellesmere.
After the Reformation, chancellors tended to have a background in law and lost the intuition and common sense of their ecclesiastical predecessors. Equity became bound by precedent and Chancery litigation was expensive and slow, often taking thirty years by the 19th cent. Chancery clerks depended on fees, not a salary, so it was in their interest to prolong proceedings. The backlog of cases grew acute under Chancellor Eldon (1801–27), who was too thorough to be efficient. Reform was piecemeal, a vice-chancellor appointed in 1813 and two more in 1842, the clerks were eliminated by 1852, procedure simplified, and a court of appeal established, but they were temporary measures. The 1873 Judicature Acts reduced the Court of Chancery to a division of the new High Court of Justice and judges were empowered to administer both law and equity.
In Ireland a chancellor presided over a separate court of equity which mirrored the development of the English equity system. In Scotland a chancellor existed from the 12th cent. and largely performed the same functions as his English counterpart. However, the chancellor became the chief administrator of law and not of a separate equitable system. Since the Union of 1707 there has been one lord chancellor for Great Britain.
Richard A. Smith
"Chancery, Court of." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chancery-court
"Chancery, Court of." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chancery-court
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.