1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lord High Chancellor

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LORD HIGH CHANCELLOR, one of the great officers of state of the United Kingdom, and in England the highest judicial functionary. The history of the office and of the growth of the importance of the lord chancellor will be found under Chancellor. The lord chancellor is in official rank the highest civil subject in the land outside the royal family, and takes precedence immediately after the archbishop of Canterbury. His functions have sometimes been exercised by a lord keeper of the great seal (see Lord Keeper), the only real difference between the two offices being in the appointment of the keeper by mere delivery of the seal, while a lord chancellor receives letters patent along with it. He is by office a privy councillor, and it has long been the practice to make him a peer and also a cabinet minister. He is by prescription Speaker or prolocutor of the House of Lords, and as such he sits upon the woolsack, which is not strictly within the House. Unlike the Speaker of the House of Commons, the lord chancellor takes part in debates, speaking from his place in the House. He votes from the woolsack instead of going into the division lobby. The only function which he discharges as Speaker practically is putting the question; if two debaters rise together, he has no power to call upon one, nor can he rule upon points of order. Those taking part in debates address, not the lord chancellor, but the whole House, as “My Lords.” The lord chancellor always belongs to a political party and is affected by its fluctuations. This has often been denounced as destructive of the independence and calm deliberativeness essential to the purity and efficiency of the bench. In defence, however, of the ministerial connexion of the chancellor, it has been said that, while the other judges should be permanent, the head of the law should stand or fall with the ministry, as the best means of securing his effective responsibility to parliament for the proper use of his extensive powers. The transference of the judicial business of the chancery court to the High Court of Justice removed many of the objections to the fluctuating character of the office. As a great officer of state, the lord chancellor acts for both England and Scotland, and in some respects for the United Kingdom, including Ireland (where, however, an Irish lord chancellor is at the head of the legal system). By Article XXIV. of the Act of Union (1705) one great seal was appointed to be kept for all public acts, and in this department the lord chancellor’s authority extends to the whole of Britain, and thus the commissions of the peace for Scotland as well as England issue from him.[1] As an administrative officer, as a judge and as head of the law, he acts merely for England. His English ministerial functions are thus briefly described by Blackstone: “He became keeper of the king’s conscience, visitor, in right of the king, of all hospitals and colleges of the king’s foundation, and patron of all the king’s livings under the value of twenty marks per annum in the king’s books. He is the general guardian of all infants, idiots and lunatics, and has the general superintendence of all charitable uses in the kingdom.” But these duties and jurisdiction by modern statutes have been distributed for the most part among other offices or committed to the judges of the High Court (see Charity and Charities; Infant; Insanity). Under the Judicature Act 1873 the lord chancellor is a member of the court of appeal, and, when he sits, its president, and he is also a judge of the High Court of Justice. He is named as president of the chancery division of the latter court. His judicial patronage is very extensive, and he is by usage the adviser of the crown in the appointment of judges[2] of the High Court. He presides over the hearing of appeals in the House of Lords. His proper title is “Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain and Ireland.” His salary is £10,000 per annum, and he is entitled to a pension of £5000 per annum.

Authorities.Observations concerning the Office of Lord Chancellor (1651), attributed to Lord Chancellor Ellesmere; Blackstone’s Commentaries; Campbell’s Lives of the Chancellors; and D. M. Kerly, Historical Sketch of the Equitable Jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery (1890).

  1. The great seal, which exists in duplicate for Irish use, is the great seal of the United Kingdom.
  2. Except the lord chief justice, who is appointed on the nomination of the prime minister.