The Court of Duchy Chamber developed out of the judicial jurisdiction exercised by the Duchy of Lancaster council, first under successive dukes of Lancaster, and after 1399, under the sovereign. In the early fourteenth century the exercise of this jurisdiction was ill-defined. However, by the 1470s the council was beginning to act as a court of equitable jurisdiction with regular procedures.
This development continued under Henry VII and by the reign of his son the Court of Duchy Chamber was operating alongside the other conciliar courts of the period, such as Star Chamber, with a fully developed equitable procedure. Its jurisdiction extended over all matters of equity involving the lands and revenues of the Duchy under the authority of the Chancellor of the Duchy. Apart from a short period during the Commonwealth, the court operated continuously until the late nineteenth century when it fell into abeyance although it has not been formally abolished.
Equity procedure and documentation in the Court of Duchy Chamber
Like other equity courts the Court of Duchy Chamber broadly followed the procedures of the royal Chancery at Westminster. Suits before the court were initiated by a complaint in the form of a written petition from one party (plaintiff) alleging some wrongful action on the part of another party (defendant). The defendant replied with a statement of his own known as an answer. Further statements could be made by both parties. These claims and counterclaims are known collectively as pleadings.
From the reign of Elizabeth I and thereafter the court (the Duchy Council) determined these disputes on the basis of evidence brought before it in the form of written depositions. These were answers, given by witnesses, to a series of question known as interrogatories, prepared by each party in the dispute. Assumed to be impartial, specific depositions provide details about a dispute which may not be clear from the biased claims of the parties alone. Witnesses were usually required to give their evidence before local men who were authorised to take their testimonies.
Leading men in the locality in which the dispute occurred were commissioned by the court to inquire into the matter at variance. Commissions were produced in the name of the sovereign and addressed to the commissioners. (During the Commonwealth period commissions were issued in the name of"the Receiver of the liberty of England by authority of Parliament.") By convention there were four of these, two chosen by each side in the dispute, although the Court of Duchy Chamber sometimes appointed more men or as few as three.
The wording of the commissions was general, ostensibly giving the commissioners authority to inquire into the circumstances of the dispute as they saw fit. In the early years of the operation of the court the commissioners sometimes exercised the full authority given by the commission. However, by the middle of the reign of Elizabeth I and thereafter the commissioners only followed the usual equity practice which was restricted to presenting pre-determined questions to witnesses selected by each party, and ensuring that the answers given were accurately recorded and sent, under their own seals, to the court where the suit was decided.
Interrogatories were the numbered questions which were read to the witnesses by the commissioners. They were in English and increasingly written on parchment. The usual equity practice was for separate lists of questions to be drawn up by the legal counsel acting for each party and both sets were usually administered on the same day. The interrogatories were either sent by the court with the commission or delivered to the commissioners on the appointed day.
Depositions were the answers given by the witnesses to the interrogatories put to them by the commissioners. Each deponent was sworn to tell the truth and examined in isolation. The questions were read one at a time and the answers recorded in English. Depositions were first recorded on paper and then engrossed (copied) onto parchment. On some occasions the fair copy was also on paper or the original draft was not copied at all. It was also possible for depositions to be made before the court at Westminster
In other equity jurisdictions, such as the Palatinates of Durham and Lancaster, the pleadings and evidence of each sit were kept separated and only brought together by the court in reaching a judgement or settlement. The commissioners while administering interrogatories did not necessarily know the details of the dispute, nor did they need to in order to fulfil their office.