The office of Lord High Chancellor, as he is formally described in legal documents, combines judicial, executive and legislative functions. Its holder is by statute president of the Supreme Court of Judicature from which office many of his administrative duties flow. He is also president of the House of Lords as supreme appellate court of Great Britain and of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which serves in a similar capacity for certain Commonwealth countries.
In addition to his judicial functions the Lord Chancellor was administrative head of Chancery and custodian of the great seal of England and, after 1707, of Great Britain. This latter office has at times been filled by keepers or commissioners of the great seal and is currently executed by the Lord Chancellor through the Crown Office.
As a member of the Cabinet the Lord Chancellor is closely involved in Cabinet proceedings, as a senior minister with his own department. Detailed legal questions are normally dealt with by the Law Officers, but the Lord Chancellor bears major responsibility for government policy in the fields of the administration of justice and law reform and consolidation. His parliamentary duties are closely linked to his responsibilities as a member of the executive for, while he is ex officio speaker of the House of Lords, he is also able to speak on the government's general and legislative policy and constitutional questions as well as his departmental responsibilities.
The most significant of the Lord Chancellor's many executive functions is responsibility for the administration of justice. Traditionally, this responsibility has been divided between the Lord Chancellor and the home secretary, the former being concerned mainly with the High Court and civil courts, the latter with the lower criminal courts.
He is responsible for the appointment of justices of the peace in England and Wales outside the Duchy of Lancaster. In exercising this responsibility he is at present assisted by nearly 240 local Advisory Committees. High Court judges, circuit judges, recorders and (since 1950 in place of the Home Office) stipendiary magistrates are appointed by the Crown on his recommendation. Senior judges are appointed on the recommendation of the prime minister, but in practice the Lord Chancellor is always consulted. He also appoints many court officials, such as masters and county court registrars.
In 1948 the Judge Advocate General of the Forces and the Judge Advocate of the Fleet were brought under the direction of the Lord Chancellor. The official solicitor, whose department is an office of the Supreme Court, is also appointed by the Lord Chancellor. In association with the secretary of state for Scotland the Lord Chancellor appoints the Council on Tribunals and is responsible for the appointment of many tribunals of a specifically judicial character.
It is to the Lord Chancellor that barristers wishing to 'take silk' apply for his recommendation to the sovereign. The Lord Chancellor appoints visitors to persons of unsound mind whose property falls within the juridiction of the Court of Protection. He also appoints the Law Commission established under the Law Commissions Act 1965 for the purpose of promoting the reform of the law and is chairman of the Statute Law Committee to which the Statutory Publications Office reports annually. In 1987 the Lord Chancellor assumed responsibility from the Home Office for the appointments, administration, salaries, staff and rules of procedure of the Immigration Appellate Authority.
The Lord Chancellor also has influence over the procedure of the courts. He gives directions governing the location and sittings of the High Court and of the Crown Court. He is responsible for laying down scales of fees and costs with Treasury approval and for the financial management of High Court, Crown Court and County Court funds. He is chairman of the Rule Committee of the Supreme Court which exercises delegated legislative powers and the Crown Court Rule Committee.
The Lord Chancellor also supervises the legal aid scheme administered through the Law Society in England and Wales, having taken over responsibility for legal aid in criminal cases from the Home Office in 1981. The Lord Chancellor also exercises ministerial responsibility for the Land Registry, the Public Trustee Office and the Public Record Office.
In addition to his duty to serve as a Church Commissioner and his extensive ecclesiastical patronage of over six hundred benefices, as well of certain other benefices which lapse to the crown the Lord Chancellor is also responsible for the nomination of peers to the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament and drawing up rules in connection with the Union of Benefices Measure 1923 and other ecclesiastical acts and measures.
Lord Chancellor's Office
Prior to 1884 the Lord Chancellor was assisted by a number of secretaries, including a principal secretary for general business, a secretary of presentations for ecclesiastical patronage work, a secretary of commissions and a secretary for County Court business. In 1884, the principal secretary, who had formerly changed with each new Lord Chancellor, was appointed permanent secretary.
In the same year the post of secretary of commissions was abolished. His duties, which involved responsibility for work relating to commissions of the peace, and correspondence with clerks of the peace, town clerks and members of parliament were then divided between the permanent secretary and the private secretary. In 1885 the office of clerk of the crown in Chancery was amalgamated with that of the permanent secretary and since then the two offices have been held in conjunction. In 1890 the post of secretary of presentations was abolished and its duties passed to the clerk of the crown in Chancery or such other officer as he might direct.
In 1922 the permanent secretary became accounting officer for the County Court vote following the transfer from the Treasury of the County Court Department; in the same year he also became accounting officer for the vote of the Supreme Court of Judicature.
Lord Chancellor's Department
The Courts Act 1971, which stemmed from the report of the Royal Commission of Assizes and Quarter Sessions 1966 to 1969, led to a major reorganisation of the courts involving the replacement of courts of assize and quarter sessions by a Crown Court, forming part of the Supreme Court of Judicature, and being divided into districts to which circuit judges and officials were appointed. These changes were reflected in the Lord Chancellor's Office by the formation of a Headquarters Court Service administrative organisation and the setting-up of a Circuit Administration. County Court business was now dealt with by the Circuit Administration and the separate County Court Branch ceased to exist. The Lord Chancellor's Office itself changed its name in 1972 to the Lord Chancellor's Department.
Establishment and finance work was absorbed within the new Headquarters Court Service together with statistical work, including the compilation of civil judicial statistics, which had been taken over from the Home Office in 1921.
Another headquarters administrative unit, under the control of the deputy clerk of the crown in Chancery, deals with Legal Administration, including Supreme Court, County Court and matrimonial causes rules. Law reform, European, international, and general legal matters are also dealt with by this division, to which is attached the secretary for ecclesiastical patronage.