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What is the Master of the Rolls?

By Mike Howells
Updated May 16, 2024
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The Master of the Rolls and Records of the Chancery of England, or simply the Master of the Eolls, is an English judicial officer who presides over the civil division of the country's Court of Appeals. Historical records document the existence of the office since the 13th century, and it is probably even older than that. The Master of the Rolls is junior only to the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice in the hierarchy of the English judicial system.

Early in its history, the office of Master of the Rolls was not a judicial one, but a record-keeping one. The master was responsible for maintaining the all records of the civil court, then known as the Court of Chancery. Over time, beginning roughly around the beginning of the 16th century, the role evolved to take on more adjudicatory duties and fewer administrative ones. By 1958, the main administrative duty retained by the Master of the Rolls was maintaining a record of registered solicitors, which is a specific category of attorneys in English law.

Specifically, the Master of the Rolls rules on civil cases that make their way to the Court of Appeals. Criminal cases are dealt with the Master of the Roll's counterpart, the Lord Chief Justice. The Civil Division almost exclusively hears cases escalated from the various county courts and the High Court of Justice.

The appeals process in England works on the basis of a defendant receiving permission to do so, rather than it being automatic following a decision. An application is filed with the lower court and it is then considered by the judge. The judge may accept or deny the appeal based on two pieces of criteria written in law; whether the appeal has a "real prospect of success", or if there is another "compelling" reason it should be heard by a higher court.

Since records began in 1286, there have been 95 masters. One of the more notable in living memory was Sir Thomas Bingham, the 91st Master of the Rolls. Sir Bingham served in the capacity from 1992 to 1996, and was instrumental in the creation of the Supreme Court of England.

Despite the country's historic achievements in the field of jurisprudence, including landmark documents such as the Magna Carta, there was no separate supreme court until 2009. Previously, the role of ultimate arbiter had been played by the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, England's upper legislative chamber. Before 2009, civil and criminal cases on appeal wound up being adjudicated by the lord Judges of the Judicial Committee, and they now are heard by the independent Supreme Court.

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