Doctors' Commons


Doctors' Commons, also called the College of Civilians, was a society of lawyers practising civil law (legal system), non-common law (civil law in that sense) in London, namely ecclesiastical and admiralty law. Like the Inns of Court of the common lawyers, the society had buildings with rooms where its members lived and worked, and a large library. It was also a lower venue for determinations and hearings, short of the society's convening in the Court of the Arches or Admiralty Court, which frequently consisted of judges with other responsibilities and from which further appeal lay. The society used St Benet's, Paul's Wharf as its church.

The non-common law in England

While the English common law, unlike the legal systems on the European continent, developed mostly independently from Roman law, some specialised English courts applied the Roman-based civil law. This is true of the ecclesiastical courts, whose practice even after the English Reformation continued to be based on the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, and also of the admiralty courts. Until reforms in the 19th century, the ecclesiastical courts performed functions equivalent to today's probate courts, subject then to appeals to separate courts (court of equity, of equity), and family courts (however divorce was much harder to achieve). These domains are small and compete with the different, civil law (common law), more common meaning of ''civil law'' i.e. all other law, but especially actionable wrongs, which are not matters of criminal law. The advocates practising in these courts had been trained in canon law (before the Reformation) and Roman law (after) at the university colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. This profession was split like its common law counterpart. The advocates (the doctors) were akin to barristers in the common law courts, meanwhile the proctors were akin to attorney at law, attorneys in the common law courts or solicitors in the courts of equity. According to some accounts, the society of Doctors' Commons was formed in 1511 by Richard Blodwell, Dean of Arches, Dean of the Arches. He served nine years. According to others, it existed in the previous century. The society's buildings acquired in 1567 were near St. Paul's Cathedral at Paternoster Row, where they were long used however in final decades nearby buildings were the venue – in Knightrider Street – until sale in 1865. In 1768 the society was incorporated. It took official name of the ''College of Doctors of Law exercent in the Ecclesiastical and Admiralty Courts''. The college still consisted of its president (the Dean of Arches) and of those doctors of law who, having taken that degree in the universities of Oxford or Cambridge, and having been admitted advocates in pursuance of the rescript of the archbishop of Canterbury, were elected "fellows" in the manner prescribed by the charter. There were also attached to the college thirty-four "proctors", whose duties were analogous to those of solicitors.


In the nineteenth century, the institution of Doctors' Commons and its members were looked upon as old-fashioned and slightly ridiculous. As anticipation of an impending abolition grew, there was a reluctance among the society to admit new fellows as this would dilute the proceeds of any winding up of the property. Dr Thomas Hutchinson Tristram was the last to be admitted. The Court of Probate Act 1857 abolished the will (law), testamentary jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts and gave common lawyers the right to practise in fields which before had been the exclusive domain of civilians (doctors and proctors), while offering the in practice scant compensation of the reverse also being permitted. Critically, the Act also made it lawful for the Doctors' Commons, by a vote of the majority of its fellows, to dissolve itself and surrender its Royal Charter, the proceeds of dissolution to be shared among the members. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 created a new divorce court in which regular barristers or doctors of Doctors' Commons could . The High Court of Admiralty Act 1859 liberalised rights of audience in the Admiralty Court. This left to Doctors' Commons only the established church's Court of Arches. A motion to dissolve the society was entered on 13 January 1858 setting the path towards the last meeting which was the end of Trinity Term, 10 July 1865. The fellows rather than surrender their offices and charter resolved for its property to be sold and no appointments to any vacant post could be made. The buildings of Doctors' Commons were sold in 1865 and demolished soon after. The site is now largely occupied by the Faraday Building.Simon Bradley (ed.), Nikolaus Pevsner, ''London. 1. The City of London'' (London: Penguin Books, 1997) p. 343. The Court of Arches gave right of audience to barristers in 1867.''Mouncey v. Robinson'' (1867) 37 L. J. Ecc. 8 The society perished with the death of its last fellow Tristram in 1912.

In Victorian literature

Satirical descriptions of Doctors' Commons can be found in Charles Dickens's ''Sketches by Boz'' and in ''David Copperfield (novel), David Copperfield'' in which Dickens called it a "cosey, dosey, old-fashioned, time-forgotten, sleepy-headed little family party."''David Copperfield'' (1849), Charles Dickens, chapter 23. In the same-era novel ''The Moonstone'' by Wilkie Collins, the solicitor of Gray's Inn Square Mathew Bruff notes, "I shall perhaps do well if I explain in this place, for the benefit of the few people who don't know it already, that the law allows all will and testament, wills to be examined at Doctor's Commons by anybody who applies, on payment of a shilling (British coin), shilling fee."

See also

* List of demolished buildings and structures in London



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External links

Description of Doctors' Commons from Charles Dickens's Sketches by Boz
1511 establishments in England 1865 disestablishments Anglicanism English law History of the Church of England History of the City of London Legal buildings in London Legal history of England Legal organisations based in London Legal professions Social history of London