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A ministerial officer within the government of the United Kingdom who performs the following functions.

1. Presides as Speaker of the House of Lords; his seat in the Chamber being known as the Woolsack. However unlike the Speaker of the House of Commons,

2. Is a member of the British Cabinet and presides over the Lord Chancellor's Department that is responsible for the administration of the court system.

3. Presides over the House of Lords in its capacity as a court.

An historical note

The office of the Lord Chancellor is also the oldest surviving British ministerial office, the origins of which date back to the tenth and eleventh centuries, when the Lord Chancellor seems to have operated as a secretary to the Court and the holder of the Great Seal of England. The role later developed and the Lord Chancellor became the the monarch's representative in the House of Lords which, prior to the developments of the eighteenth century was the most important of the two Houses of Parliament and effectively made the Lord Chancellor the leader of the King's government. (Or indeed where appropriate, the Queen's.)

Sourced from the National Digital Archive of Datasets at http://ndad.ulcc.ac.uk/datasets/AH/lordchan.htm and the The Lord Chancellor's Department online at http://www.lcd.gov.uk/lcdhome.htm

The post of Lord Chancellor was one of the oldest in the British state, dating back perhaps 1,000 years. It is a peculiar one in that the Lord Chancellor was a member of the executive, judiciary and legislature. Historically he kept the Great Seal of England, which he used from the Chancery to issue all manner of Royal writs and proclamations (the Chancery became a corporate body in the reign of King Edward I). He was the King's right-hand man and usually charged with pursuing his business in Parliament (he sat in the House of Lords, but might be dispatched to the House of Commons to try and cow them into submission1). The Lord Chancellor was traditionally a clergyman, although they usually saw their dioceses as rewards for service (because of the revenue they generated) than actual spiritual committments. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was the archtypical absentee Churchman-cum-Chancellor.

The Court of Chancery developed into a corporate body from the jurisdiction that had been given to the Lord Chancellor. It differed from the common law courts because they were based on strict precedent, but the Chancery was supposed to be based on fairness and equity as according to the Chancellor and the King's Justice. It was rivalled by the Court of Star Chamber in the 16th century, particularly when Cardinal Wolsey sat in it. Henry VIII encouraged plaintiffs to bring business directly to the Star Chamber, and it was often used as a weapon against political opponents. It was appropriate to this task because of its speed (Wolsey gradually clogged it up because of his apparent desire to bring the entire realm's legal business into his orbit). These sessions were public under the Tudors, but made private under the Stuarts2. The Court of Chancery was merged with the common law courts in 1873 and common law judges empowered to administer equity.

In Cabinet3, the Lord Chancellor was responsible for the judiciary. He would appoint magistrates, circuit judges, Queen's Counsels and nominate candidates for the High Court. He was also President of the Supreme Court (this encompasses the High Court, Crown Court and Court of Appeals) and the House of Lords in its judicial capacity (it's still the highest court in the land). In his role of administering the courts he headed the Lord Chancellor's Department, which was established in 1885. Other duties included being the government's official visitor to Universities, where he would hear appeals by students against academic authorities. In all, 347 Acts of Parliament referred to the duties of the Lord Chancellor.

And the post is no more. On 12 June, 2003 Prime Minister Tony Blair announced the intention to introduce legislation that would abolish the post of Lord Chancellor, and introduce the new post of Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. The Lord Chancellor at the time, Lord Irvine of Lairg, refused to rule out sitting as a judge while reform took place. Thus he resigned and was replaced by the first Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, who is also Lord Chancellor until legislation abolishes the post. He has said he will not sit as a judge in the interim. The change was brought about because the office was seen as an anomaly which served to undermine the independence of the judiciary and the House of Lords (because the Speaker was a government Minister, whereas in the Commons he's traditionally neutral). The new set-up looks something like this -

  1. The new Department for Constitutional Affairs takes on the duties of the Welsh Office and the Scottish Office, as well as duties that previously only the Lord Chancellor could exercise. When this is complete the role of Lord Chancellor can be abolished.
  2. A new independent body will appoint judges. Judges will no longer double as politicians.
  3. A new Supreme Court will become the highest Court in the land.
  4. The new Speaker of the House of Lords will not be a government Minister. It is unknown how exactly he or she will be appointed, and this will be discussed by the House of Lords.

Tony Blair came under fire for the changes, with the usual charges that he's a "dictator". Grassroots support for the reform seems strong, however, with a general public consensus that all the business with the wigs and fancy dress is a bit, well, old-fashioned. Lord Falconer will almost certainly be the last Lord Chancellor.

Famous Lord Chancellors include Thomas More, Thomas Wolsey, Francis Bacon and Saint Thomas Becket. See the Appendix for a full list of all the Lord Chancellors since 1068.

1. The most famous such instance that I can think of was the deputation of Sir Thomas More to the Houses in March 1531. Though vehemently opposed to King Henry VIII's plan to divorce Catherine of Aragon (a viewpoint which would eventually make him shorter by a head), More was dispatched to put the King's case before both the Commons and the Lords.

2. Eventually the Star Chamber was abolished by the Long Parliament in 1641. Charles I's enemies cited his abuses in Star Chamber when calling for his execution, and indeed the Stuarts did use it to suppress opposition to Royal policy. They also used it against nobles who were too powerful to be brought to trial in lower courts. Although the Star Chamber was abused under the Stuarts, it should be remembered favourably under Warham and Wolsey - they genuinely did help the "little guy". A soldier applying for justice against an officer in the Calais garrison, for instance, received a full and impartial hearing.

3. The United Kingdom is sometimes considered peculiar in that the executive branch (ie. the Cabinet) is drawn entirely from the legislative. Current Prime Minister Tony Blair has come under criticism for supposedly moving the center of power away from these elected officials (although some Lords sit in Cabinet, it's mostly elected members of the Commons) to unelected civil servants referred to as "Tony's cronies". Alastair Campbell was a typical example of just such a person - as Director of Communications for Downing Street he seemed to wield a large degree of power in the government, and yet was not an elected official.


Appendix - list of Lord Chancellors and Lord Keepers

Note: sometimes the role of Lord Chancellor was taken on by a 'Lord Keeper'. At this time it was said to be 'in commission'. For instance, it lapsed after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, then came back a few years later.


Sources

BBC

Churchill, Winston. History of the English-speaking Peoples (four vols): Cassell, 1956

Encarta

Wikipedia

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