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Court of Arches in United Kingdom

Definition of Court of Arches

In accordance with the work A Dictionary of Law, this is a description of Court of Arches : The ecclesiastical court of appeal from the consistory court (See ecclesiastical courts), which has the jurisdiction of the former provincial Court of Archbishop of Canterbury. The judge of the court, the Dean of Arches, hears appeals from bishops or their chancellors, deans and chapters, and archdeacons. The court’s name is derived from its original location, the church of St Mary-le-Bow, whose steeple was erected upon arches.


Court of Arches, the English ecclesiastical court of appeal of the archbishop of Canterbury, as metropolitan of the province of Canterbury, from all the consistory and commissary courts in the province. It derives its name from its ancient place of judicature, which was in the church of Beata Maria de Arcubus—St Mary-le-Bow or St Mary of the Arches, “by reason of the steeple thereof raised at the top with stone pillars in fashion like a bow bent archwise.” This parish was the chief of thirteen locally situated within the diocese of London but exempt from the bishop’s jurisdiction, and it was no doubt owing to this circumstance that it was selected originally as the place of judicature for the archbishop’s court.

The proper designation of the judge is official principal of the Arches court, but by custom he came to be styled the dean of the Arches, a title belonging formerly to the chief official of the subordinate court. Originally, the official principal exercised metropolitan jurisdiction, while the dean of the Arches exercised the “peculiar” jurisdiction. The jurisdictions called “peculiars” at one time numbered nearly 300 in England. They were originally introduced by the pope for the purpose of curtailing the bishop’s legitimate authority within his diocese; “an object which,” says Phillimore, “they certainly attained, to the great confusion of ecclesiastical jurisdiction for many years.” The dean of the Arches originally had jurisdiction over the thirteen London parishes above mentioned, but as the official principal was often absent as ambassador on the continent, he became his substitute, and gradually the two offices were blended together.

The original office of the dean of the Arches may now be regarded as extinct, though the title is still popularly used, for no dean of the Arches has been appointed eo nomine for several centuries, and by an act of 1838 bishops have jurisdiction over all peculiars within their diocese. The judge of the Arches court was until 1874 appointed by the archbishop of Canterbury by patent which, when confirmed by the dean and chapter of Canterbury, conferred the office for the life of the holder. He took the oaths of office required by the 127th canon. But by the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 the two archbishops were empowered, subject to the approval of the sovereign by sign-manual, from time to time to appoint a practising barrister of ten years’ standing, or a person who had been a judge of one of the superior courts (being a member of the Church of England) to be, during good behaviour, a judge for the purpose of exercising jurisdiction under that act, and it was enacted (sec. 7) that on a vacancy occurring in the office of official principal of the Arches court the judge should become ex officio such official principal. In this way the late Lord Penzance became dean on the retirement of Sir Robert Phillimore in 1875.

Lord Penzance received in 1878 a supplemental patent as dean from Archbishop Tait, but did not otherwise fulfil the conditions observed on the appointment of his predecessors. On Lord Penzance’s retirement in 1899, his successor, Sir Arthur Charles, received a patent from the archbishop of Canterbury as official principal of the Arches court, and he took the oaths of office according to the practice before the Public Worship Regulation Act. He was subsequently and separately appointed judge under that act. Sir A. Charles resigned in 1903 and was succeeded by Sir L.T. Dibdin, who qualified in the same way as his immediate predecessor.

The official principal of the Arches court is the only ecclesiastical judge who is empowered to pass a sentence of deprivation against a clerk in holy orders. The appeals from the decisions of the Arches court were formerly made to the king in chancery, but they are now by statute addressed to the king in council, and they are heard before the judicial committee of the privy council. By an act of Henry VIII. (Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Act 1532) the Arches court is empowered to hear, in the first instance, such suits as are sent up to it by letters of request from the consistorial courts of the bishops of the province of Canterbury, and by the Church Discipline Act 1840, this jurisdiction is continued to it, and it is further empowered to accept letters of request from the bishops of the province of Canterbury after they have issued commissions of inquiry under that statute, and the commissioners have made their report.

The Arches court was also the court of appeal from the consistory courts of the bishops of the province in all testamentary and matrimonial causes. The matrimonial jurisdiction was transferred to the crown by the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857. Under the Clergy Discipline Act 1892 an appeal lies from the judgment of a consistory court under that act, in respect of fact by leave of the appellate court, and in respect of law without leave, to either the Arches court or the judicial committee of the privy council at the option of the appellant. Under the Benefices Act 1898 the official principal of the archbishop is required to institute a presentee to a benefice if the tribunal constituted under that act decides that there is no valid ground for refusing institution and the bishop of the diocese notwithstanding fails to institute him.

After the College of Advocates was incorporated and had established itself in Doctors’ Commons, the archbishop’s court of appeal, as well as his prerogative court, were usually held in the hall of the College of Advocates, but after the destruction of the buildings of the college, the court of appeal held its sittings, for the most part, in Westminster Hall. For many years past there has been but little business in the Arches court, mainly owing to the unwillingness of a large number of the clergy to recognize the jurisdiction of what they deny to be any longer a spiritual court, and the consistent use by the bishops of their right of veto in the case of prosecutions under the Public Worship Regulation Act. On the rare occasions when a sitting of the court is necessary, it is held in the library of Lambeth Palace, or at the Church House, Westminster.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)

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  • Article Name: Court of Arches
  • Author: Agostino Von Hassell
  • Description: Definition of Court of Arches In accordance with the work A Dictionary of Law, this is a description of Court of Arches : [...]

This entry was last updated: October 19, 2016


Ecclesiastical Law


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