What is the usual role of a solicitor now?
The legal profession in the UK is, for the most part, divided into two
branches, namely those of solicitors and barristers. Solicitors, who
must have a practising certificate and follow the provisions of the
'Solicitors Act 1974', give legal advice and conduct legal proceedings.
Clients have direct access to solicitors who instruct barristers, a
lawyer 'called to the bar' so being allowed to plead in the superior
courts, to act on the client's behalf if a case is to be tried in a
court such as the High Court, Crown Court or the Court of Appeal.
Solicitors handle most civil cases tried in county courts.
How did this division come about?
During the Elizabethan period the volume of legal business grew
enormously as law, particularly statute law, was increasingly seen as
the foundation of the newly centralised state. This, together with the
replacement of travelling assize courts with static ones, meant an
enormous increase in the numbers of lawyers of all types. This was the
period in which the Inner Temple and Gray's Inn thrived. This was also
the period of the first solicitor general who was responsible for
defending the rights of the state and crown.
A multiplicity of courts and types of lawyers develops
The famous lawyer of the period, Edward Coke, made an enormous study of
the law to date and managed to mesh the old common law with that of
Parliament. The Court of Common Pleas, with its chief justice and puisne
judges, had been the main court for matters not involving the king but
this was being replaced by several other courts including that of the
King's Bench. In Slade's Case, 1596-1602, there were judges from both
the Court of Common Pleas and the King's Bench. Equity cases, dealt with
by solicitors, came to be held at Chancery courts. Attorneys gave legal
advice in lawsuits.
Solicitors in the nineteenth century
By the nineteenth century solicitors were still largely working in the
Chancery courts concerned with property cases. Charles Dickens details
this type of work in his novel, Bleak House, when he describes the
seemingly never-ending Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce case. Another group of
lawyers known as proctors worked in the Admiralty and ecclesiastical
The merger of all lawyers except barristers
In 1873 the 'Supreme Court of Judicature Act' merged all solicitors,
proctors and attorneys giving them all the title of solicitor. This
resulted in solicitors carrying out a much wider range of work than
previously effectively covering all work except advocacy in the higher
Recent changes in the solicitors role
The advent of solicitor advocates has caused barristers to lose their
exclusivity as solicitor advocates may act in superior courts as well as
in inferior ones. This follows the trend of judicial systems in
countries such as Australia where there is less of a split in the legal
profession. It is now also possible, in some cases, for the public to
directly hire a barrister without hiring a solicitor challenging a
traditional role of the solicitor. Another change concerns the creation
of the Supreme Court so making what was the highest solicitor in the
land, the solicitor general, the 'solicitor of the senior courts of
England and Wales'.