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. Chancery cases are typically those 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 estate, 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. Some areas, such as tax and IP, require specialisation.

In practice, there's crossover between Chancery practice and the work of the Commercial Bar (historically dealt with in the QBD). To reflect this in July 2017 the Chancery Division was combined with the QBD's Commercial Court and the Technology and Construction Court to form the 'Business and Property Courts'. Sounds confusing, but thankfully the Chancery Bar is a natural habitat for megabrains.


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 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 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 abounds. Traditional work can involve human interest: wills and inheritance can cause serious family rifts. Commercial Chancery practitioners deal with boardroom disputes or bust-ups between co-writers of million-selling songs or disputes about literary estates.
  • 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

October 2020

  • The Chancery Bar attracts high-value, complex domestic cases and offshore and cross-border instructions. Recently China has been taking the mantle from Russia as the largest source of international work. Plenty of cases focus on massive offshore trusts in tax havens like the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands and the Channel Islands.
  • In November 2018, The Ministry of Justice announced plans to change the structure of probate fees (which are paid when administering a deceased person’s estate) from the fixed, £215 rate and replace it with fee bands. Estates worth less than £50,000 wouldn’t have to pay anything, but the highest value estates (worth £2 million or more) could have been charged £6,000, meaning the government would have made around £185 million in profit by 2022. The government claims the ‘death tax’ is necessary to keep courts running. However, charities expressed major concern with the proposed changes; namely, that wealthy individuals would no longer leave large estates to legacies in their wills. As such, the MOJ scrapped the plans towards the end of 2019.
  • According to statistics gathered by The Law Society, 85% of cases heard in business courts in England and Wales still went ahead (remotely) during the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps indicating an increase in efficiency, 50% of Chancery cases lasted less than an hour, and 70% lasted under two hours. It’s good news, given 3,000 fewer cases were heard in 2019 compared with the previous year, which experts put down to a decrease in insolvency cases. Such cases are now expected to drastically increase as a result of the pandemic.
  • Brexit may limit the ability of English barristers to work in EU jurisdictions on issues of EU, domestic or international law, and withdrawal from the European Court of Justice could create inconsistency between the judgments of EU and English courts, making the English legal system less attractive. However, many partners and barristers we spoke to remained confident in the future for British courts.

Some tips

  • Most pupils at leading Chancery sets have a First and have won tons of academic prizes. 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?