UK state official, originally the royal secretary, today a member of the cabinet, whose office ends with a change of government. The Lord Chancellor acts as Speaker of the House of Lords, may preside over the Court of Appeal, and is head of the judiciary.
Until the 14th century he was always an ecclesiastic, who also acted as royal chaplain and Keeper of the Great Seal. Under Edward III the Lord Chancellor became head of a permanent court to consider petitions to the king: the Court of Chancery. In order of precedence the Lord Chancellor comes after the archbishop of Canterbury.
History The primary meaning of cancellarius is one who is stationed at the screen (cancellus) of a window or doorway, to introduce visitors. In another sense, cancellarius was a kind of legal scribe, so called from his position at the cancelli of the courts of law. The cancellarius, under the later Roman emperors and at the court of Constantinople, was a chief scribe or secretary who was ultimately invested with judicial powers and a general superintendence over the rest of the imperial officials.
The chancellor in England was originally the king's chief secretary. Evidence of the use of the name is found as early as AD 920. As a result of appeals made to the king as the source of justice, the chancellor developed an important judicial role. In time he displaced the chief justiciar as the king's chief minister and developed a power in the state second only to that of the king. From early times the chancellor was usually an ecclesiastic, head chaplain and confessor to the king and keeper of the king's conscience. As a result of this latter position the chancellor must, since the Reformation, be a member of the established church, and cannot therefore be a Roman Catholic. The last ecclesiastic to hold the office was John Williams, Archbishop of York, who was chancellor from 1621 to 1625. Since that date the chancellor has always been a layman and the office is now always held by a lawyer.
Current role The chancellor is properly known as the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, but is commonly referred to as the Lord Chancellor. He or she is also Keeper of the Great Seal, although historically the two offices have sometimes been separated. In rank the Lord Chancellor takes precedence immediately after the royal family and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The holder of the office is now normally a peer or is elevated to the peerage on appointment. The Lord Chancellor is appointed by the prime minister and leaves office when the government resigns.
The office of Lord Chancellor illustrates the fusion of the three branches of government, in that the Lord Chancellor fulfils executive, legislative, and judicial functions. In an executive capacity the Lord Chancellor is a member of the cabinet and is the government's principal legal and constitutional adviser. In the absence of the sovereign he also reads the Queen's speech at the opening of Parliament; he also reads all other messages from the sovereign to Parliament, and announces in the House of Lords the royal assent to bills. In a legislative capacity he is Speaker of the House of Lords and, unlike the Speaker of the House of Commons, participates in debates and votes in divisions, but has no casting vote. When speaking in debates he leaves the seat, known as the woolsack, and speaks from the government benches. In a judicial capacity the Lord Chancellor is head of the judiciary, may preside over the House of Lords when it is sitting as a final court of appeal, and over the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (see Privy Council). He is also president of the Court of Appeal, the High Court, and the Chancery Division, although he does not normally preside over them.
The Lord Chancellor also recommends the appointment of High Court and circuit judges, and appoints and removes recorders, stipendiary magistrates, and justices of the peace in England and Wales, and is responsible for the review of law reform and the revision of statute law, principally through the Law Commission, which he appoints. Finally, the Lord Chancellor controls the Land Registry and the Public Trustee Office, and is generally responsible for all court records.
The Lord Chancellor is assisted in his work by a small department, headed by a permanent secretary, who holds the office of Clerk of the Crown in Chancery. The current Lord Chancellor is Elizabeth Truss (since 2016).
Chancellor of Scotland The Chancellor of Scotland, like his English counterpart, was always a high officer of the Crown and developed considerable legal and political authority. The office expired, however, in 1707, following the Treaty of Union with England.