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Original role of the Lord Chancellor
Historically, the Lord Chancellor had executive, legislative and judicial functions. The office-holder was:
- a member of the Cabinet, responsible (among other things) for the administration of the courts;
- the presiding officer of the House of Lords;
- the senior judge on the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords.
The Lord Chancellor used to take two oaths, both of which were set out in the Promissory Oaths Act 1868. The first is the oath of allegiance. It is taken by the holders of a wide range of executive and judicial offices. It states:
I, [NAME], do swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her heirs and successors, according to law.
The Lord Chancellor, specifically as a judge, would also take the judicial oath, which is set out in the same, and other, Acts. It states:
I, [NAME], do swear by Almighty God that I will well and truly serve our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second in the office of Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, and I will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will.
An oath is, in effect, a solemn promise to discharge the duties of an office in conformity with a set of values, principles and/or allegiances. It conditions the behaviour of someone who takes it. In the case of judges, the purpose of the oath is to ensure that they uphold, and that they themselves follow, the law and that they are fair and impartial to the parties that come before them.
In the context of the Lord Chancellor, it might be said that the judicial oath had wider implications. Since the officeholder was also responsible for the administration of the courts, the oath’s duties could meaningfully be said to extend to the executive, not just the judicial, functions.
Reform of the role and a new oath
The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 made major changes to the role of Lord Chancellor. One of the consequences of those changes was that the holder of the role would no longer be a judge or head of the judiciary. It was considered important, nevertheless, that the Lord Chancellor should take an oath to uphold the new functions of his or her office.
Section 17 of the 2005 Act created a new, specific, Lord Chancellor’s oath, which now forms part of the Promissory Oaths Act 1868. The oath must be taken “as soon as may be” after the individual in question has accepted the appointment of Lord Chancellor.
The oath itself says:
I, [NAME], do swear that in the office of Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain I will respect the rule of law, defend the independence of the judiciary and discharge my duty to ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts for which I am responsible. So help me God.
A Library paper looks in more detail at the role of the Lord Chancellor, explaining how it has changed with and since the passage of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Please see:
- Role of the Lord Chancellor, SN02105, 25 March 2015
The House of Lords Constitution Committee also published a report in December 2014, following an inquiry into the role of the Lord Chancellor.
- The office of Lord Chancellor, 2014-15 HL Paper 75, 11 December 2014
Among other things, the report recommended (at para 51) a reform to the Lord Chancellor’s oath, so as to include a commitment to “respect and uphold” (rather than just “respect”) the rule of law. However, this change has not been made to the Promissory Oaths Act.
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