Chancery originated in Medieval England as a distinct court of equity, named for the Lord Chancellor. In its earliest form, those who were unable to obtain an adequate common law remedy could petition the King of England, who would refer the case to the Lord Chancellor. Over time, Chancery grew from an administrative body within the King’s Council to a separate court with its own formalized procedures and doctrines. Compared to the increasingly rigid courts of common law, the Court of Chancery provided more adaptable remedies based on notions of moral fairness. While courts of common law were mostly limited to providing monetary damages, the Court of Chancery could order forms of equitable relief such as specific performance or injunctions.
Many of the early American colonies preserved the distinction between common law and equity jurisdiction, and some states eventually established chancery courts with exclusive jurisdiction over matters in equity. Today though, only a few states maintain separate chancery courts. Delaware’s Court of Chancery is perhaps the most prominent for its handling of corporate disputes and fiduciary litigation involving trusts and estates. Mississippi Chancery Court has jurisdiction over adoptions, custody disputes, divorces, guardianships, and sanity hearings. Both Mississippi and Tennessee give their chancery courts jurisdiction to hear name change petitions. As a general rule, most disputes in chancery court are heard by a chancellor, who resolves the case and fashions relief without a jury.
For additional information, Delaware Courts has made available an essay discussing Chancery’s English origins and the history of the state’s own Court of Chancery. Another historical account from the Tennessee Bar Association is available here.
[Last updated in June of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]