The Chancery Bar

In a nutshell

The Chancery Bar is tricky to define. The High Court has three divisions: Family, Queen’s Bench (QBD) and Chancery, with cases allocated to and heard by the most appropriate division based on their subject matter. But what makes a case suitable for the Chancery Division? Historically it has been the venue for cases with an emphasis on legal principles, foremost among them the concept of equity (fairness).

 

cases with an emphasis on legal principles,
foremost among them the concept of equity (fairness)

 

Cases are generally categorised as either ‘traditional’ Chancery (trusts, probate, real property, charities and mortgages) or ‘commercial’ Chancery (company law, shareholder cases, partnership, banking, pensions, financial services, insolvency, professional negligence, tax, media and IP). Most Chancery sets undertake both types of work, albeit with varying emphases.

In practice, there is an overlap between Chancery practice and the work of the Commercial Bar (historically dealt with in the QBD). Barristers at commercial sets can frequently be found on Chancery cases and vice versa, though some areas, such as tax and IP, require specialisation.

Realities of the job

  • This is an area of law for those who love to grapple with its most complex aspects. It’s all about the application of long-standing legal principles to modern-day situations.
  • Barristers must be very practical in the legal solutions they offer to clients. Complex and puzzling cases take significant unravelling and the legal arguments/principles must be explained coherently to the solicitor and the lay client. Suave and sophisticated presentation when before a judge is also vital.
  • Advocacy is important, but the majority of time is spent in chambers perusing papers, considering arguments, drafting pleadings, skeletons and advices, or conducting settlement negotiations.
  • Some instructions fly into chambers, need immediate attention and then disappear just as quickly. Others can rumble on for years.
  • Variety is a key attraction. Traditional work can involve human interest: wills and inheritance can cause all sorts of ructions among families. Commercial Chancery practitioners deal with blood-on-the-boardroom-table disputes or bust-ups between co-writers of million-selling songs.
  • Schedules aren’t set by last-minute briefs for next-day court appearances, so barristers need self-discipline and good time management skills.
  • The early years of practice feature low-value cases like straightforward possession proceedings in the County Court, winding-up applications in the Companies Court and appearances before the bankruptcy registrars. More prominent sets will involve baby barristers as second or third junior on larger, more complex cases.

Current issues

  • The Chancery Bar attracts high-value, complex domestic cases and offshore and cross-border instructions. They might involve Russian and Eastern European business affairs or massive offshore trusts in the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda and the Channel Islands.
  • The scope of the Chancery Division means that practitioners get involved in some enormous commercial and public law matters.

Some tips

  • Most pupils at leading Chancery sets have a First. You should enjoy the analytical process involved in constructing arguments and evaluating the answers to problems. If you’re not a natural essay writer, you’re unlikely to be a natural-born Chancery practitioner.
  • Don’t wander into this area by accident. Are you actually interested in equity, trusts, company law, insolvency, IP or tax?
  • Though not an accurate portrayal of modern practice, Dickens' novel Bleak House is the ultimate Chancery saga.