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Master of the Rolls in United Kingdom


Master of the Rolls, the third member of the Supreme Court of Judicature in England, the lord chancellor, president of the chancery division, being the first, and the lord chief justice, president of the king’s bench division, being the second. At first he was the principal clerk of the chancery, and as such had charge of the records of the court, especially of the register of original writs and of all patents and grants under the Great Seal. Until the end of the 15th century he was called either the clerk or the keeper of the rolls, and he is still formally designated as the master or keeper of the rolls. The earliest mention of him as master of the rolls is in an act of 1495; and in another act of the same year he is again described as clerk of the rolls, showing that his official designation still remained unsettled. About the same period, however, the chief clerks of the chancery came to be called masters in chancery, and the clerk, master or keeper of the rolls was always the first among them, whichever name they bore.

In course of time, from causes which are not very easy to trace, his original functions as keeper of the records passed away from him and he gradually assumed a jurisdiction in the court of chancery second only to that of the lord chancellor himself. In the beginning he only heard causes in conjunction with the other masters in chancery, and his decrees were invalid until they had been approved and signed by the lord chancellor. Sitting in the Rolls chapel or in the court in Rolls yard, he heard causes without assistance, and his decrees held good until they were reversed on petition either to the lord chancellor or afterwards to the lords justices of appeal. Before any judge with the formal title of vice-chancellor was appointed the master of the rolls was often spoken of as vice-chancellor, and in theory acted as such, sitting only when the lord chancellor was not sitting and holding his court in the evening from six o’clock to ten.

Only since 1827 has the master of the rolls sat in the morning hours. By the Public Record Office Act 1838 the custody of the records was restored to him, and he is chairman of the State Papers and Historical Manuscripts Commissions. Under the Judicature Act 1875, and the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876, he now always sits with the lords justices in the court of appeal (which usually sits in two divisions of three judges, the master of the rolls presiding over one division), whose decisions can be questioned only in the House of Lords. The master of the rolls was formerly eligible to a seat in the House of Commons—a privilege enjoyed by no other member of the judicial bench (Sir John Romilly, M.P. for Devonport, 1847 to 1852, was the last master of the rolls to sit in Parliament. He was appointed master of the rolls in 1851); but he was deprived of it by the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873, which provides that all judges of the High Court of Justice and the court of appeal shall be incapable of being elected to or sitting in the House of Commons. The master of the rolls is always sworn of the privy council. His salary is £6000 a year. (1)


Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition)

See Also

Further Reading

English Law: Master of the Rolls in the Past

An officer who bears this title and who acts as an assistant to the lord chancellor, in the court of chancery.


This officer was formerly one of the clerks in chancery whose duty was mainly confined to keeping the rolls; and when the clerks in chancery became masters, then this officer became distinguished as master of the rolls. Vide Master in Chancery. [1]


Notes and References

  1. Partialy, this information about master of the rolls is based on the Bouvier´s Law Dictionary, 1848 edition. There is a list of terms of the Bouvier´s Law Dictionary, including master of the rolls.

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Schema Summary

  • Article Name: Master of the Rolls
  • Author: MacCallum
  • Description: History Master of the Rolls, the third member of the Supreme Court of Judicature in England, the lord chancellor, president [...]

This entry was last updated: May 31, 2020


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