South Carolina Court of Equity - A History

First called the Court of Chancery, this court evolved from the King's secretarial department, or Chancery. It heard petitions from individuals who alleged that the normal judicial procedures had failed to treat them fairly, often because they were poor or lacked influence.

Instead of following the strict procedural rules of Common Law, this court administered justice according to the "rules of equity and good conscience." It was a legal system that functioned parallel to, but distinct from, the courts of law in that it made its decisions not on precedent but rather on what was fair in a particular situation.

This court either decided what the equitable rights of parties were or granted equitable remedies. Because judges ruled on cases that often provoked intra-familial disputes (breach of confidence or contract, the creation and development of trusts, the liability of trustees, conditional mortgages, prohibition of waste by trustees, executors, or guardians, conditions of inheritance and dower rights, etc.), these records are valuable to researchers.

South Carolina abolished the Court of Equity in 1868 with its merger of the courts of law. The Rules of Civil Procedure now govern actions involving equity.

During the colonial period, the Grand Council functioned as the Court of Chancery since the colony's beginning, but the legislature did not pass a statute regulating it until 1721. That Act empowered the Governor and Council to hold a court of chancery and gave it extensive jurisdiction. The court granted and issued "original writs and other processes" and heard, judged, and decided on "all causes and suits in equity." It had a "master in equity," who heard motions and gave orders, and a "register in equity," who signed all writs. In 1746, the court consisted of the Governor and a majority of his Council.

The US Revolution interrupted the Court of Chancery. The South Carolina Constitution of 1778 revived it and named the Lieutenant Governor and a majority of the Privy Council as its officers. Frequent changes in the council's membership, however, made this situation inconvenient, so in 1783, the legislature passed an Act to establish a three-judge Court of Chancery. The court retained its master and register, and it still met in Charleston.

The legislature was given the authority to establish courts of law and equity under the Constitution of 1790. In 1791, it established three equity districts - one to meet in Cambridge for the Ninety-Six District, one to meet in Charleston for the districts of Charleston, Beaufort, and Georgetown, and the third to meet in Columbia for the districts of Camden, Cheraw, and Orangeburg. A commissioner in equity functioned as the master in each circuit. The following December, the legislature made Cambridge the seat for the districts of Ninety-Six, Washington, and Pinckney, except for Chester and York counties. These two were added to the oversight in Columbia.

In 1799, the existing districts were divided into four equity circuits - eastern, western, northern, and southern. The Court sat in two places in each circuit. The eastern circuit met in Charleston to hear cases from Charleston, Colleton, and Beaufort Districts - and in Georgetown, to hear cases from Georgetown and Marion Districts. The northern circuit met in Society Hill to hear cases form the districts of Darlington, Marlboro, and Chesterfield - and in Camden, to hear cases from Fairfield, Kershaw, Lancaster, Richland, and Sumter Districts. The western circuit met in Union to hear cases from the districts of Spartanburg, Union, and York - and in Laurens to hear cases from Greenville, Laurens, and Newberry Districts. The southern circuit met in Abbeville to hear cases from Pendleton, Abbeville and Edgefield Districts - and in Orangeburg to hear cases from Barnwell and Orangeburg Districts.

Legislation from 1808 to 1841 changed the number of circuits and districts. An Act of 1840 revised the duties of the masters and the registers and defined the types of records. It also described how records should be kept and filed and required each court to keep two series of volumes - one for the records of the master and one for the records of the register.

The complicated organizational structure of the Courts of Equity in South Carolina often make the records difficult to locate. Generally, they are retained in the seat where they were created, unless a new district commissioner asked, as he legally could, for the earlier records relating to his district.

© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved