Areas of work, specialisms and alternatives

What is chancery law? A guide for aspiring barrister pupils

19 Aug 2023, 19:56

Chancery barristers tend to handle big-money disputes and complex legal cases.

The Royal Courts of Justice against a grey background

The best aspects of this area of practice are its variety and intellectual challenge. Intricate legal issues and analysis are often at the forefront of chancery cases, so there is plenty of scope for creative legal thinking. Chancery work also tends to be relatively well paid. Edward Sawyer, barrister at Wilberforce Chambers, kindly explains chancery law at the Bar for aspiring pupils. Edward graduated from the University of Oxford in 1998 with a degree in modern history and was called to the Bar in 2001.

Edward Sawyer, barrister at Wilberforce Chambers

Edward Sawyer, barrister at Wilberforce Chambers

What is chancery law at the Bar?

The term ‘chancery’ describes the field of law typically dealt with in the Chancery Division, a part of the High Court. Chancery practice covers matters such as wills, trusts, intestacy, bankruptcy, corporate insolvency, company law, land law, landlord and tenant, partnership disputes, charities, civil fraud, asset tracing and much else besides.

Chancery practitioners often divide areas of practice into ‘traditional chancery’ work (such as wills, trusts, charities, land law) and ‘commercial chancery’ (such as insolvency, company law, fraud, asset tracing), though there is no hard and fast distinction.

Chancery disputes are civil cases involving private parties in dispute about property and money. Cases range from small arguments between family members about a deceased relative’s small estate, to vast multi-billion-pound disputes between large businesses. Typically, cases will involve at least a few hundred thousand pounds and are often worth millions. They tend to be legally and/or factually complex and have a reputation for involving complicated and technical legal issues.

What do chancery barristers do?

A chancery barrister needs to be able to work with a diverse range of clients: ‘ordinary’ people from normal backgrounds, high net worth individuals from the UK and overseas, directors of PLCs and trustees etc. Sometimes the UK government or local authorities need to instruct chancery barristers too.

Chancery barristers probably have fewer cases on the go at once than in many other fields of law. Court cases require a lot of preparation and planning. Chancery barristers are often brought into litigation at an early stage to ensure the legal issues are correctly analysed and articulated at the outset. Cases are usually carefully prepared for trial, and penetrating legal analysis before the case gets to a hearing can be as useful as bravura advocacy in court.

Chancery barristers therefore tend to spend a fairly high proportion of the time working at their desks relative to the amount of time spent in court, and some chancery barristers undertake a lot of purely advisory work in cases that never become litigious. In contrast, in some areas (eg insolvency or land law disputes) cases often go to court. The majority of hearings do not involve live evidence from witnesses and are decided on legal issues and documentary evidence; ‘witness actions’ are in the minority.

For chancery barristers whose practice involves relatively few court appearances, there is plenty of scope for flexible working and achieving a good work/life balance. For those more regularly in court, hours can be long as court timetables are demanding and there is little flexibility: working late and at weekends can be the norm.

Most chancery cases are dealt with in London or in the major regional court centres in Cardiff, Birmingham, Bristol or Leeds. Some chancery work involves overseas travel. In particular, those who specialise in trusts can find themselves involved in cases in the West Indies or Hong Kong.

What is life like as a chancery law pupil?

Chancery pupils can generally expect to keep to ordinary office hours of 9.00 am–6.00 pm. They will usually shadow all aspects of their pupil supervisors’ work, and will be expected to produce research notes, legal opinions and pleadings for their supervisors to review. There is usually only limited opportunity for pupils to carry out their own work during pupillage. Chancery pupillages are usually fairly well remunerated.

What skills do you need to be a chancery law barrister?

Chancery sets look for the most intellectually able when selecting potential pupils, so academic brilliance is essential. Cases are often document heavy, so attention to detail is a necessary trait in chancery barristers, as well as the ability to express complex matters clearly and simply.

Types of law practised within chancery law

  • Equity and trusts.
  • Land law.
  • Contract.
  • Company law.
  • Insolvency law.
  • Restitution.

How much can I earn as a chancery law pupil?

You will likely shadow a number of different members of chambers alongside your pupil supervisor and may later specialise in one area of law (generally one of chambers’ specialties) once you have been in practice for some time. As such it can be tricky to nail down exact earnings for early tenants, but you can take a look at our overview of How much you can earn as a pupil barrister to get a general idea of how much each chambers offers to pupils. Sets in the more commercially orientated areas tend to offer between £40,000 and £75,000 for 12 months but there is a huge variation by practice area.

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