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Chancery law area of practice

Chancery law: area of practice (barristers)

An area of practice that is increasingly branching out into offshore jurisdictions, explains Jonathan from Wilberforce Chambers.
Clients can rightly be quite demanding and you need to be able to speak to them directly and confidently while commanding their respect.

The heart of chancery law is trusts, both commercial and private. Private trusts involve entrepreneurs or individuals who have put their wealth into a structure for various beneficiaries. Commercial trusts work involves the use of trusts to hold money in business, such as pension or hedge funds.

Life at the chancery bar

A chancery barrister can have 10 to 15 cases on the go at any one time. A typical private trust case might involve an offshore trust established by a wealthy entrepreneur. The trust may run smoothly while the entrepreneur is alive and has control of how it is run, but after death, family members may not be pleased to find their substantial inheritance tied up in trusts and will take action to obtain a larger share of the wealth. Private trust cases may last around two years, though the most extreme cases can last up to a decade.

A typical commercial trust case may involve a large employer who has closed a pension scheme to cut costs, for example, removing employees from a final salary pension scheme. The members of the scheme may be upset, and a fight can ensue as to whether the pension scheme has been validly shut. A pension fund case will normally last about two years.

It is unusual for a chancery barrister to be in court every week, but hearings typically last anything from a day to a few weeks. Cases are dealt with by the Chancery Division of the High Court or offshore courts that tend to attract chancery litigation, such as Jersey or the Cayman Islands.

Working hours necessarily vary a lot between barristers because they are self-employed and can make their own decisions. Many find the work/life balance at the chancery bar is pretty good. You have flexibility in the hours you keep. The key is whether you can come up with a clear solution or particular line of argument on a case, not how long it takes to find it.

The qualities of a chancery law barrister

Chancery is a law-heavy area of practice. In order to be successful you need three things: the ability to break down complex problems and explain difficult ideas as simply as possible, the ability to come up with creative solutions and a liking for dealing with people. Clients can rightly be quite demanding and you need to be able to speak to them directly and confidently while commanding their respect.

Chancery cases are normally confidential, but high-profile commercial or personal fights often play out in the press. Students should be aware of the battle over Boris Berezovsky’s estate after he killed himself in the wake of a massive High Court battle with Roman Abramovitch, the litigation around the estate of Jimmy Savile and, on the commercial side, the issues and public outcry over Fred Goodwin’s large pension pot during the financial crisis.


London is still a favoured location for much of the world’s rich to live and there is an increasing expansion of the chancery bar into offshore jurisdictions. During a downturn, trusts can go wrong as investments turn out to be bad or people look to trusts for money in the absence of other ready sources, which leads to a steady flow of cases. Certainly the modern end of the chancery bar seems to have done well during the recession.

As a pupil

Chancery pupils are unlikely to work long, unpredictable hours. Pupils will spend their time seeing all aspects of chambers’ work, helping their pupil supervisor prepare for court, reading papers and preparing for conferences with clients or advising clients themselves as well as writing opinions and drafting. Towards the end of their second six, pupils will probably be conducting work on their own. There is normally a good flow of smaller chancery work at the junior end of the Bar.

Types of law practised

  • Trusts
  • Contract
  • Restitution
  • Property

Good chancery barristers have...

  • The ability to present complex ideas in simple terms
  • Creative problem-solving skills
  • Good business acumen and the ability to understand the financial world
  • Good people skills

JONATHAN HILLIARD is a barrister at WILBERFORCE CHAMBERS. He graduated with a degree in law from the University of Cambridge in 2001 and was called to the Bar in 2003.