Mention 'chancery' and most people think of Dickens' Bleak House, where the case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce “dragged its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless”.
Ask a chancery lawyer what it is and they will say chancery practice is essentially about companies, trusts and tax. One leading practitioner considers it “the most academic of the three divisions of the High Court”.
For practical purposes, chancery tends to be split into traditional chancery, which includes 'old-fashioned' trusts and probate, and modern chancery, covering offshore tax arrangements, company constitutions and property matters.
Although most barristers in this area are consulted essentially as specialists for fine-tuning on chancery matters rather than as advocates, cases do end up in court, and have occasionally been quite high profile.
One of the most-publicised concerned the settlement of Blenheim Palace on successive Dukes of Marlborough – Hambro and others v The Duke of Marlborough and others before Mr Justice Morritt in 1994. In that case Sir William Goodhart QC and David Rowell appeared for the trustees, Robert Walker QC and Tracey Angus for the Marquess of Blandford, Edward Nugee QC for the Earl of Sunderland and Judith Bryant for Lord Edward Spencer-Churchill. The Duke of Marlborough did not appear and was not represented. The law firms were Withers, Taylor Joynson Garrett and Charles Russell.
But increasingly it is 'commercial chancery' cases that appear in the Chancery Division.
The headline “Duped wives win right to keep homes” appeared in The Guardian following a ruling by Lord Justices Neill and Gibson. In that case, Leolin Price QC and David Schmitz appeared for the wife and Gavin Lightman QC and Nigel Clayton for the lender CIBC. The instructing solicitors were Brian Hillman & Co and Fox Brooks Marshall for CIBC.
In the specialised area of pensions there has been a raft of cases. In re Drexel Burnham Lambert UK Pension Plan, Mark Herbert QC appeared for the first defendant, Michael Furness for the second defendant and Nicholas Warren QC for the third and fourth defendants. Robert Ham QC appeared for the fifth defendant and Geraint Thomas for the sixth. The law firms were Lovell White Durrant, Baker & McKenzie and Travers Smith Braithwaite. John Stephens, instructed by Freshfields, appeared for the plaintiff.
A case that received coverage in the national and music press was that involving George Michael, showing that chancery practice is not just interpretation of succession law or corporate technicalities. The case was reported under Panayiotou & others v Sony Music Entertainment (UK) where Sheridans instructed Mark Cran QC, Jeremy Lever QC, Ian Mill and Pushpinder Saini, and Clintons instructed Gordon Pollock QC, David Unwin (now QC), Peter Duffy and Vernon Flynn.
As one barrister points out, the cases that make the headlines are the ground breaking ones: “Chancery practice is not a traditional field just ploughing the same old lines – it is a rapidly developing field where much of the important banking and commercial litigation of the 1990s is being litigated.”