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Great Offices: The Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain


Lord Campbell (1779-1861), Lord Chancellor 1859-61, sporting court dress

Perhaps the oldest extant office in the United Kingdom bar the Crown, would be the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain – more commonly known as the Lord Chancellor. Its other, considerably more recent name, is Secretary of State for Justice.  The present Lord Chancellor is Kenneth Clarke, MP for Rushcliffe.

Essentially the United Kingdom’s Justice Minister, the office has been in continuous existence since 1062, in the reign of Edward the Confessor. William the Conqueror kept the office upon his accession to the throne, serving as the head of the Chancery.

For much of the medieval period, the Lord Chancellor was the most powerful office below the monarchy and, when in use, the Lord High Steward, controlling access to the King, providing religious services (being almost always a churchman) and bearing custody of the Great Seal of the Realm. The Lord Chancellor also carried out some executive functions surrounding public petitions through his High Court of Chancery.

Since 2007, the Lord Chancellor has led the Ministry of Justice and before that the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Before 2003 it was the Lord Chancellor’s Department. The office concerns itself primarily with the judiciary, and before 2005 the Lord Chancellor had extensive control over the appointment of judges and barristers in England and Wales. Since then the Lord Chancellor has had less direct control and overseas a more independent selection process.

The Lord Chancellor also historically had more extensive judicial functions, such as when the House of Lords was still the Kingdom’s High Court, as well as the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme (now Senior) Courts of England and Wales. In practice, however, in recent times these roles were delegated to other officials in the courts, to avoid a conflict with the principle of separation of powers.

The Lord Chancellor also has church duties, and appoints on behalf of the Crown a large array of minor clergymen that work on Crown land and the Duchy of Cornwall (neither of which are supplied with state funds but funded with Crown Estate/Duchy money). The Lord Chancellor also supervises ecclesiastical courts and is a Church Commissioner.

If the monarch is a minor, or incapacitated in some way, then under the 1937 Regency Act, the Lord Chancellor is one of the five persons who would declare this so.

The present Lord Chancellor, Ken Clarke MP, alongside the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge

From 1533, to 2007, all Lord Chancellors have been peers, and thus sat in the House of Lords (except one – Charles Yorke, in 1770). Until the passing of the Constitutional Reform Act in 2005, the Lord Chancellor was also Speaker of the House of Lords. In practice, however, the Lords’ strong sense of self-regulation meant there was little activity by this office, and most of the time the House would elect someone else to serve in his absence – much like the President pro tempore of the United States Senate stands in place of the Vice President of the United States. Now, the role is carried out permanently by the Lord Speaker.

Before the 1707 Act of Union, there were separate Lord Chancellors for England and Scotland, which were then merged into the present office. This was not repeated under the 1801 Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland, and there remained a Lord Chancellor for Ireland until Irish independence in 1922. Hence, it is the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, not the United Kingdom. The powers of the Lord Chancellor of Ireland are now exercised by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The Lord High Chancellor is the second highest ranked great office of state in the Kingdom, behind the Lord High Steward and ahead of the Lord Treasurer. He is also Keeper of the Queen’s Conscience (historically exercising power over public petitions) and Keeper of the Great Seal (controlling the authorisation of official documents and the monarch’s signature on Acts of Parliament).

Jack Straw, as Lord Chancellor, giving Her Majesty the Gracious Speech at the State Opening of Parliament

The Lord Chancellor wears court dress, which constitutes a full scarlet wool gown decorated with stoat fur, full bottomed wig and a tricorne hat. This is normally when when carrying out judicial ceremonies, such as the Lord Chancellor’s Breakfast. When carrying out parliamentary ceremonies (such as the Prorogation and the State Opening of Parliament), the Lord Chancellor wears a silken black gown with gold lining lace cravat, stockings and buckled shoes.

Until 1998, the 1351 Treason Act made killing the Lord Chancellor a capital offence.

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