The Court of Chancery
was a court of equity in England and Wales that followed a set of loose rules to avoid the slow pace of change and possible harshness (or "inequity") of the common law. The Chancery had jurisdiction over all matters of equity, including trusts, land law, the administration of the estates of lunatics and the guardianship of infants. Its initial role was somewhat different, however; as an extension of the Lord Chancellor's role as Keeper of the King's Conscience
, the Court was an administrative body primarily concerned with conscientious law. Thus the Court of Chancery had a far greater remit than the common law courts
, whose decisions it had the jurisdiction to overrule for much of its existence, and was far more flexible. Until the 19th century, the Court of Chancery could apply a far wider range of remedies than the common law courts, such as specific performance
and injunctions, and also had some power to grant damages in special circumstances. With the shift of the Exchequer of Pleas towards a common law court and loss of its equitable jurisdiction by the Administration of Justice Act 1841, the Chancery became the only national equitable body in the English legal system
Academics estimate that the Court of Chancery formally split from and became independent of the curia regis
in the mid-14th century, at which time it consisted of the Lord Chancellor and his personal staff, the Chancery. Initially an administrative body with some judicial duties, the Chancery experienced an explosive growth in its work during the 15th century, particularly under the House of York, which academics attribute to its becoming an almost entirely judicial body. From the time of Elizabeth I onwards the Court was severely criticized for its slow pace, large backlogs, and high costs. Those problems persisted until its dissolution, despite being mitigated somewhat by reforms, particularly during the 19th century. Attempts at fusing the Chancery with the common law courts began in the 1850s, and finally succeeded with the 1873 and 1875 Supreme Court of Judicature
Acts, which dissolved the Chancery and created a new unified High Court of Justice
, with the Chancery Division – one of three divisions of the High Court – succeeding the Court of Chancery as an equitable body.
For much of its existence the Court was formally led by the Lord Chancellor, assisted by the judges of the common law courts. The staff of the court included a large number of clerks, led by the Master of the Rolls, who regularly heard cases on his own. In 1813 a Vice-Chancellor was appointed to deal with the Chancery's increasing backlogs, and two more were appointed in 1841. Offices of the Chancery were sold by the Lord Chancellor for much of its history, raising large amounts of money. Many of the clerks and other officials were sinecures who, in lieu of
wages, charged increasingly exorbitant fees to process cases, one of the main reasons why the cost of bringing a case to the Chancery was so high. The 19th century saw the abolition of many sinecure offices and the institution of a wage and pension for the Lord Chancellor to curb the sale of offices, and later the right to appoint officials was transferred from the Chancellor to the Crown.