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Lord Chancellor
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Lord Chancellor

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The office of Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, or Lord Chancellor, is one of the oldest offices of state in the United Kingdom, and the second Great Officer of State, ranking only after the Lord High Steward. In the modern table of precedence he outranks everyone other than the Archbishop of Canterbury and members of the Royal family.

The Lord Chancellor has the responsibility of presiding over the House of Lords from the Woolsack and keeping the Great Seal, and is the highest judicial officer in the United Kingdom. The current Lord Chancellor (since 2003) is Lord Falconer of Thoroton.

In 2004 the Government of Prime Minister Tony Blair introduced a Constitutional Reform Bill to abolish the office and split the powers currently possessed by the Lord Chancellor between other bodies. Strong opposition in the House of Lords means that the bill is unlikely to be approved in its original form, although some government reforms to the Lord Chancellorship may survive.

Table of contents
1 History of the office
2 The role of the Lord Chancellor
3 Reform of the Chancellorship
4 Lord Chancellors and Lord Keepers of England, 1068-1707
5 Lord Chancellors and Lord Keepers of Great Britain, 1707-present

History of the office

The office of Lord Chancellor dates back to the Kingdom of England, at least as far back as the Norman Conquest, and possibly earlier. Some give the first chancellor of England as Angmendus, in 605. Originally, the Lord Chancellor was the officer responsible for keeping the Great Seal of England, the king's right hand man, and was usually a clergyman. Until well into the 17th century, the Lord Chancellor often was one of the most important officials in the English government. He still outranks the Prime Minister in official precedence, and killing the king's chancellor is still an act of treason under the Treason Act 1351.

Since the initiation of Cabinet government, the Lord Chancellor has always had a seat in the government. Occasionally, the Great Seal would be put into commission, and there would be no Lord Chancellor. In those times, the commission was led by the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.

As Keeper of the Queen's Conscience the Lord Chancellor was once also the chief judge of the court of Chancery in London, dispensing equity to soften the harshness of the law. (A Lord Chancellor features in Charles Dickens's novel Bleak House, where the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce has been tied up in Chancery for years.)

Among the most famous Lord Chancellors were Thomas Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More, Martyr, under King Henry VIII, and Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon under King Charles II.

In 1362 the Lord Chancellor addressed Parliament in English, rather than French, for the first time following the Norman Conquest.

The role of the Lord Chancellor

The Lord Chancellor has a ceremonial costume consisting of black-and-gold robe and a white, full-bottomed wig. This has been worn since the 18th century.

Today, the Lord Chancellor fulfils a threefold role, which comprehends the legislative, executive and judicial parts of the constitution:

Legislative role

The Lord Chancellor is de facto speaker of the House of Lords. The House of Lords in theory has no speaker, the Lords governing themselves rather than accepting the rulings of a speaker, but as its most senior member, the Lord Chancellor, in full court dress and full bottomed wig, sits on the Woolsack and presides over debates. He cannot be absent without the leave of the House.

As a peer, the Lord Chancellor also participates in debates, almost always as a minister on behalf of the Government. When he does so, he moves from the Woolsack to the top of the earls' bench.

Executive role

The Lord Chancellor is a member of the Cabinet and heads a department known as the Lord Chancellor's Department (now the Department for Constitutional Affairs), responsible for the administration of the courts, the appointment of judges, etc.

As is natural for an office that is at least a thousand years old, the chancellorship has accumulated many duties and functions. In total there are 347 current Acts of Parliament that refer specifically to the Lord Chancellor, ranging from the Treason Act 1351 to the Finance Act 2003.

The Lord Chancellor exercises (on his own behalf as well as on behalf of the Crown) the job of Visitor of many universities, colleges, schools, hospitals and other charitable organisations throughout the United Kingdom. He is responsible for resolving disputes, hearing appeals, etc. In some cases he appoints office-holders such as school governors, etc.

Ecclesiastical functions

The Lord Chancellor exercises the same functions in relation to Royal peculiars - those churches and chapels which are not under the hierarchy of the Church of England but under direct royal control, such as Westminster Abbey. In addition he has the right to appoint clergymen in over 400 parishes and 12 cathedral canonries under the patronage of the Crown, e.g. within the old Diocese of Winchester. He exercises the same function in relation to livings under the patronage of the Duchy of Cornwall when the heir to the throne is a minor.

The Lord Chancellor is ex officio a Church Commissioner, a member of the body that controls Church lands. He also appoints 15 members of the Ecclesiastical committees in Parliament which consider measures of the General Synod of the Church of England before they are submitted for Royal Assent.

Judicial role

The Lord Chancellor is the head of the judiciary in the United Kingdom. Although the Lord Chancellor is usually a senior lawyer rather than a judge, he upon appointment becomes president of the Appellate Committees of the House of Lords (which is a court as well as a house of Parliament) and (conventionally) of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the highest courts that exist in the United Kingdom. He is President of the Supreme Court of Judicature of England and Wales, which comprises the Court of Appeal, the High Court of Justice and the Crown court), as well as President of the Chancery division of the High Court. See Courts of England and Wales.

Lord Chancellors have in practice exercised their judicial functions very sparingly. The convention has developed that Lord Chancellors do not sit as judge in a case which involves the Government; and in addition many cases will be outside the expertise or interest of the Lord Chancellor of the day. The job of presiding over and administering each court from day to day is in reality left to the Senior Law Lord (House of Lords), the Master of the Rolls (Court of Appeal Civil division), the Lord Chief Justice (Court of Appeal Criminal division) and the Vice Chancellor (High Court Chancery division). The other divisions of the High Court - the Queen's Bench and the Family Division - are led by their own heads: the Lord Chief Justice and President of the Family Division respectively.

The present Lord Chancellor has announced that pending reform/abolition of the office he will no longer sit as a judge. Nevertheless, the Lord Chancellor has taken the judicial oath, and it is often said that the most important job of the Lord Chancellor is to preserve the independence of the judiciary, and to argue for the judiciary in the Cabinet. Although it is a political appointment, once appointed the Lord Chancellor is expected to be above party politics, despite being a government minister. The dignity and prestige of this ancient office has meant that on the whole (with a few exceptions) Lord Chancellors have managed to balance the competing demands with success. One political appointee later went on to be martyred for standing up to his political master (see Sir Thomas More).

Reform of the Chancellorship

Nonetheless, since the enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998 the combined role of the Lord Chancellor as member of the executive and judiciary has increasingly become untenable. The previous Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg refused to rule out sitting as a judge, and it has been argued that the radical proposals that came with his replacement are partly due to his refusal to take this simple step.

In 2003 the Prime Minister appointed Lord Falconer of Thoroton as Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and announced his intention to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor, to create a separate Supreme Court and a separate speakership of the House of Lords. After much surprise and confusion and it became clear that the ancient office of Lord Chancellor could not be abolished without parliamentary legislation. Lord Falconer duly appeared in the House of Lords the next working day in full-bottomed wig and breeches to preside as Lord Chancellor, as he is required to do by the Standing Orders of the House every day the House is sitting unless he has obtained a leave of absence.

The Lord Chancellor's Department has been renamed the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Although the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs remains Lord Chancellor, the present incumbent will not sit as a judge.

In March 2004 the House of Lords upset the Government's plans by sending its Constitutional Reform Bill to a select committee. Although initially seen as a move to kill the bill, agreement was reached between the Government and opposition parties in the Lords that the bill would be allowed to proceed through the parliamentary process, subject to any amendments made by the committee. Recent media reports suggest that while the Lords may consent to some reforms, including the Government's plans to create a supreme court to assume the judicial functions of the House of Lords, it is unlikely to assent to the outright abolition of the Lord Chancellorship. On July 13,2004, the House amended the Government's Constitutional Reform Bill to retain the name of the office (though retain most other intended reforms), prompting ministerial threats to reintroduce the Bill in the Commons, and to force it through under the Parliament Act.

External link: Reforming the office of Lord Chancellor

Lord Chancellors and Lord Keepers of England, 1068-1707

in exile restoration

Lord Chancellors and Lord Keepers of Great Britain, 1707-present