1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Solicitor

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SOLICITOR, in England, an officer of the Supreme Court of Judicature qualified to conduct legal proceedings for his clients: see also Attorney. Previous to the reign of Henry III. the common law considered it indispensable that the parties to a suit should be actually present, but the privilege of appearing by attorney was conceded in certain cases by special dispensation. The passing of the statute of Merton and subsequent enactments made it competent for both parties in all judicial proceedings to appear by attorney. Previous to the passing of the Judicature Act of 1873 there was a distinction between the terms “solicitor” and “attorney.” Solicitors appear to have been at first distinguished from attorneys, as not having the attorney’s power to bind their principals, but latterly the distinction was between attorneys as the agents formally appointed in actions at law, and solicitors who took care of proceedings in parliament, chancery, privy council, &c. In practice, however, and in ordinary language, the terms were synonymous. Down to the 17th century the solicitor of the chancery courts was considered inferior to the attorney of the common law courts, but the rapid growth of equity jurisdiction gave the solicitor an importance in no degree inferior to his fellow practitioner at the common law. Until 1873 it was usual for attorneys to be admitted as solicitors as well, but the Judicature Act of that year enacted that all persons admitted as solicitors, attorneys or proctors of an English court shall henceforth be called solicitors of the Supreme Court. Regulations regarding the qualification of attorneys are found as far back as the 20 Edward I. (1292), and the profession has been stringently regulated by a series of statutes passed during the 19th century, notably the Solicitors Act 1843 and the Solicitors Acts 1877 and 1888.

Every person, before he can become a duly qualified solicitor, must serve an apprenticeship or clerkship to a practising solicitor for a term of years varying from three to five, he must pass all the necessary examinations, he must be duly admitted and entered on the roll of solicitors kept by the Incorporated Law Society and must take out an annual certificate to practise. The organization of the profession is in the hands of the Incorporated Law Society. Established originally in 1827, in succession to an earlier society dating back to 1739, it was incorporated in 1831. It began courses of lectures for students in 1833 and ten years later was constituted registrar of attorneys and solicitors. In 1860 it obtained the power of suing unqualified solicitors and in 1888 it was given the custody of the roll of solicitors, on the abolition of the office of the clerk of the Petty Bag. The Solicitors Act of 1888 vested in the Incorporated Law Society the power of investigating complaints as to the professional conduct of solicitors, as well as power to refuse to renew the annual certificate of a solicitor, subject to the solicitor’s right of appeal. The statutory committee of the Incorporated Law Society may make application to the court to strike a solicitor off the rolls without preliminary inquiry by the committee where he has been convicted of a criminal offence, but where he is alleged to have been guilty of unprofessional conduct or a statutory offence the committee first hold a preliminary inquiry. Apart from its judicial administrative authority it has exercised powerful influence in the attitude which it has frequently taken towards proposed legislation. Membership of the society, which is not compulsory, is open to any duly qualified practising solicitor, on approval by the council. No person, however duly qualified, can be admitted as a solicitor till he has attained jthe age of twenty-one years. Though admitted as a solicitor and his name entered on the roll he is not at liberty to practise until he has taken out his annual certificate, the fees for which vary according as the applicant intends to practise in London or the provinces. Solicitors now have a right to practise in any court, i.e. in every division of the High Court, in every inferior court, in the ecclesiastical courts (as proctors), in the court of appeal, in the privy council and in the House of Lords. Their right of audience, however, is restricted. They may appear as advocates in most of the inferior courts, as before justices, magistrates, coroners, revising barristers and county courts. They have no right of audience, however, in the Mayor's court, London, nor in the High Court of Justice, privy council or House of Lords, where, from time immemorial, the right has pertained to the bar, but they have right of audience in chambers and certain bankruptcy matters. Since the Conveyancing Act 1881 solicitors may do all kinds of conveyancing, which formerly was considered the exclusive business of the bar. The Conveyancing Act 1881 having made great changes in the practice of conveyancing, it became necessary to place the remuneration of solicitors upon a new basis. This was done by the Solicitors Remuneration Act, passed on the same day as the Conveyancing Act. It provides for the framing of general orders, fixing the principles of remuneration with reference inter alia to the skill and responsibility involved, not, as was generally the case before, with reference simply to the length of the documents perused or prepared. A solicitor is not responsible for statements made by him in his professional capacity as an advocate, and all communications which pass between a solicitor and his client are privileged, so also is any information or document which he has obtained in his professional capacity on behalf of his client. The relation of solicitor and client disqualifies the former from dealing with his client on his own behalf, while it gives him a lien, on professional services, over the deeds, &c, of the client in his possession. A solicitor's remuneration is minutely arranged by statute and he has no power of recovering more from his client than his statutory charges, and he is liable to be sued for damages for negligence in his client's behalf. Certain personal privileges belong to a solicitor. He is free from serving on juries, nor need he, against his will, serve as a mayor, alderman, sheriff, overseer or churchwarden.

In Scotland solicitors in the Supreme Court are not, as in England, the only persons entitled to act as law agents. They share the privilege with writers to the signet in the Supreme Court, with agents at law and procurators in the inferior courts. They were formed into a society in 1784 and incorporated in 1796, and are usually recognized as members of the College of Justice. This difference is, however, now of little importance, as by the Law Agents Act 1873 any person duly admitted a law agent is entitled to practise before any court in Scotland. In the United States the term solicitor is used in some states in the sense of a law agent practising before a court of equity.

Many of the great public offices in England and the United States have their solicitors. In England the treasury solicitor fills an especially important position. He is responsible for the enforcement of payments due to the treasury, and conducts generally its legal business. The office of king's proctor is also combined with that of treasury solicitor. Under his powers as king's proctor the treasury solicitor acts as administrator of the personal estate of an intestate which has lapsed to the crown, and intervenes in cases of divorce where collusion is alleged (see under Proctor). Under the Prosecution of Offences Act 1884 he also acted as director of public prosecutions, and was sometimes called Crown Solicitor. By the Prosecution of Offences Act 1908 the office of director of public prosecutions was separated from that of treasury solicitor and made a separate appointment. In Ireland, solicitors called crown solicitors are attached to each circuit, their duty being to prepare the case for the crown in all criminal prosecutions. In the United States the office of solicitor to the treasury was created by Act of Congress in 1830. His principal duties are to take measures for protecting the revenue and to deal with lands acquired by the United States by judicial process or vested in them by security for payment of debts.

See E. B. V. Christian, A Short History of Solicitors; Cordery on Solicitors; and A. P. Poley, Law Affecting Solicitors.