Unless you live in Delaware, Mississippi, or Tennesse, you may not be familiar with the term Chancery Court. But Chancery Courts were part of the English judicial system for hundreds of years, were brought to the American colonies, and were part of most U.S. states’ early judicial systems.
The name itself originated outside of the judicial system; in Europe, starting with the Roman Empire, the Chancellor was in charge of government records. When today’s English legal system first began to develop after the Norman Conquest, the Chancery was the public records office, under the direction of the Lord Chancellor. Because the Lord Chancellor was the keeper of the royal seal and a chief advisor to the Crown, it was a powerful office – a government bureau, staffed with bureaucrats.
As the English common law system grew, parties unsatisfied with its limitations began to petition the Lord Chancellor, and the judicial role of the Chancery expanded. Although the courts of common law retained jurisdiction over lawsuits – disputes between parties that could be resolved by an award of money damages – the Court of Chancery had jurisdiction of matters of equity – things that could be resolved by a writ of specific performance (an order to do something), an injunction (an order to not do something), or some other resolution based on a sense of fairness. Because “fairness” was a more flexible standard than common law’s reliance on precedent, having a case heard in the Court of Chancery was an attractive prospect, so the caseload grew. But corruption in the form of exorbitant fees and conflict with the system of common law courts dogged the Chancery until major reforms in the 19th century combined the courts into a single system. Yet the distinction between law and equity remained – they required different remedies – so the English judicial system included a Chancery Division. The judges were now actual judges instead of the Lord Chancellor or his minions.
Courts of Chancery in the U.S. were generally merged with courts of law around the same time that occurred in England, e.g., New York in 1846, Michigan in 1847. Delaware, Mississippi, and Tennessee retained their separate Chancery Courts, while other states retained the distinction between law and equity cases in their merged systems. For example, New Jersey Superior Courts in each county have Chancery Divisions which handle general equity, contested probate, and family cases. Circuit Courts in larger counties in Illinois have Chancery Divisions, most notably in Cook County. Many South Carolina counties have a Master in Equity, who can hear cases that may be heard without a jury and make a recommendation to Circuit Court. South Carolina Masters in Equity may make final decisions in some cases, although those decisions can be appealed to Circuit Court or the state Supreme Court.
Note that chancery cases are always civil cases, never criminal. Since equity generally includes orders to do or refrain, rather than resolution of money disputes, chancery cases can include wills, the administration of estates, trusts, and guardianships and conservatorships for children and incompetent adults – although in many states, these types of cases are handled by probate courts. Chancery cases may also include divorce and adoptions, although in many states those cases are handled by family courts or trial courts of general jurisdiction.
The Delaware Court of Chancery is probably the best-known U.S. chancery court, because it hears cases involving the many corporations that are chartered in this corporation-friendly state. It can order specific performance or an injunction, which are typical remedies in contract or intellectual property cases, but it can also award money damages in technology cases where over $1 million is in dispute. In addition to its business caseload, it also hears cases involving land disputes, trusts, probate, and guardianships.
In Mississippi, Chancery Court judges are still called Chancellors and, like their early English antecedents, they also have local government administrative duties. In court, they hear cases involving family law (including divorce), probate, guardianship, real estate, and mental health commitments. In counties without a County Court, the Chancellor or an appointed referee sits as Youth Court judge to hear juvenile matters.
In Tennessee, Circuit Courts and Chancery Courts are separate but share jurisdiction over many types of cases: most general civil cases, family law, probate, and guardianships. Circuit Courts may hear equity cases if no objection is raised. In effect the main difference between Circuit and Chancery Court in Tennessee is that Chancery Court has exclusive jurisdiction over cases filed by the state against corporations, and cases involving land disputes; Circuit Court has exclusive jurisdiction over administrative appeals. Tennessee Chancery Court judges are also called Chancellors, but they have no additional local government administrative duties.
Find information about your own state’s trial courts at CourtReference.