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

  • 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.
  • 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.

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?