Church of England, Cheshire Diocese, Consistory Court
Administration of justice
Administrative / biographical background:
The Chester Consistory Court was established in 1541 and met in a room, which still survives, in the south-west corner of the cathedral. The court is presided over by the Chancellor and its main area of jurisdiction today is in the settling of faculty disputes and matters of clergy discipline.
Until the nineteenth century the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts covered the moral and religious conduct of clergy and laity, the maintenance of the fabric and furniture of church buildings, and matters relating to tithe, probate and matrimony.
Cases were, broadly, either office, instance or office promoted. Office cases (initiated by the office of the bishop) were the ecclesiastical equivalent of criminal jurisdiction and included moral offences, absence from church, failure to follow official doctrine, unlicensed teaching, performance of illegal marriages, etc. Instance cases (initiated "at the instance" of one private individual against another) were the equivalent of civil jurisdiction and included defamation, tithe, pew, matrimonial and testamentary disputes. Office promoted cases were "office" cases by nature (eg performance of clandestine marriage) but which had been "promoted" by a private individual rather than by the office of the bishop.
In theory the jurisdiction of the court covered the entire diocese. However the existence of the commissary court of the archdeaconry of Richmond attracted most Richmond cases to itself and disputed cases frequently went directly to the archbishop's court at York, rather than to Chester. Thus the Chester consistory records primarily cover Cheshire and South Lancashire (ie the former archdeaconry of Chester). The grant of probate and the issue of marriage licences by the court, for example, specifically covered the archdeaconry of Chester only.
Nineteenth century legislation reduced the court's role. Tithe causes were removed by the Tithe Commutation Act 1836. Testamentary and matrimonial causes were transferred respectively by the Court of Probate Act 1857 and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 to the new secular Probate Court and Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes. (These ultimately became part of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court of Justice in 1873). The removal of defamation causes and the virtual end of the court's judicial role were completed by the Ecclesiastical Courts Act 1855 and the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860.
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