The Inns Of Court And Inns Of Chancery And Their Records

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The Inns Of Court And Inns Of Chancery And Their Records

by Clare Rider, IT Archivist 1998-2009

The origins of the inns of court remain obscure. However, it is certain that by the mid-fourteenth century lawyers had begun to congregate in the Temple, to the south of Fleet street, in the City of London, occupying buildings erected there by the Knights Templar and subsequently acquired but not used by the Knights Hospitaller.

In due course, two societies of lawyers were formed there, each occupying one of the two halls built by the Templars on the site, and there is evidence that they had adopted the names of the Inner and the Middle Temple by 1388. Meanwhile, two other societies of apprentices at law had been established to the north of Fleet street - Lincoln's Inn to the west of Chancery lane, on land partly owned by the Bishops of Chichester, and Gray's Inn to the north-east, on a site formerly occupied by the Lords Grey of Wilton as their London residence. Although earlier origins have been claimed for the inns of court, Professor Baker links the development of these societies with the settlement of the royal law courts in Westminster in the 1340s and with the formation of a number of similar forms of fellowship at this time, including the Order of the Garter. It was not until nearly a century later (about 1425) that we find them referred to as the 'inns of court' - inns because they provided accommodation for lawyers and law students, and 'of court' because their members appeared in the king's courts. However, it is clear that, once established, they offered not only residential accommodation and hospitality to their members, but also, more importantly, legal training. Indeed, in the early modern period, the inns of court and chancery became collectively known as 'the third university of England'.

The main functions of the medieval inns of court continue to the present day, albeit significantly altered over time, and they have also assumed the role of the now defunct serjeants' inns, which were reserved for the most senior members of the profession (the serjeants at law). The inns of court provide chambers, residential flats, dinners, social events, chapels, libraries and moots, even if they are no longer the sole deliverers of legal education for the bar. It continues to be the inns of court and not the law courts who call suitably qualified practitioners to the bar, giving them the exclusive right of audience in the superior courts, and, it is the inns who, if necessary, disbar their members for professional misconduct. In recent times, the inns have formed and contributed to a number of joint bodies to promote, educate, regulate and discipline the profession, such as the Council of the Inns of Court, the Bar Council (or General Council of the Bar) and the Council for Legal Education (founded in 1852 and abolished 1997); but, to quote Sir Robert Megarry, 'these are merely modern versions of ancient functions'.

The inns of court have never been incorporated and exist today as associations, regulated by custom and standing order. Their presiding officer, the Treasurer, holds office for a year and governs in association with a council of benchers, in the Inner and Middle Temple known as the parliament of the inn, and in Gray's Inn known as the pension, and with a number of bench committees. The benchers are the highest of the three categories of membership, namely: students (once known as inner barristers), barristers (once known as 'utter' or outer barristers on their call to the bar of the inn) and benchers (now elected to the bench on attaining high judicial office or on the basis of a distinguished professional career). It is one of the most senior benchers who becomes Treasurer of the inn for the year, having served the previous year in a designated office such as Reader (in the Inner Temple) or Master of the Library (in Lincoln's Inn). The inns also choose honorary benchers distinguished in other walks of life and each has a number of royal benchers. Since the sixteenth century, the Treasurer has been assisted by an Under- or Sub-Treasurer, who soon became a permanent and salaried official, and from the earliest days, each inn has employed domestic staff, including at various times a butler, steward, head porter, gardener, boghouse keeper, cook, pannierman and a number of waiters, turnspits and other servants to assist in the kitchen. It is interesting that, in 1565, the Lincoln's Inn benchers felt it necessary to exclude laundresses and other female servants from the inn unless below the age of twelve or over the age of forty, presumably to keep the students' attention focused on the law. In addition, the inns have libraries and chapels, or in the case of the Inner and Middle Temple, equal shares in the Temple church. The inns fiercely maintain their independent status as local authorities and, in the case of the Temple, as a royal peculiar, denying the jurisdiction of both the Bishop and the Lord Mayor of London. In the seventeenth century, when the Lord Mayor of London bore his sword on entering the Inner Temple, a fracas ensued and he was forced to seek refuge in the chambers of Auditor Phillips, where he was further insulted, whilst the status of the Temple church as a royal peculiar was put to the test as recently as 1996.