The vast majority of my law practice involves divorce and family law matters in Mississippi. As a result, a lot of the work I perform goes through the Mississippi chancery courts, rather than state circuit courts. When I tell many of my clients that their case will be heard in chancery court, they often ask me what’s the difference between the two types of state courts. The distinction is not always the easiest to understand. In short, the Mississippi court system is comprised of both courts of law and courts of equity. Some courts focus on what is “fair,” while others focus on what is “just” under applicable law. Mississippi chancery courts–or family law courts–are courts of equity, while state circuit courts are courts of law.
Chancery courts originated in medieval England. The Chancery dynamic is one common law holdover that played a considerable role in legal jurisprudence in the early years of the United States. These courts were developed in England to help fill the inequitable voids created or fostered by the English law courts. English Kings of the time commissioned councils led by Lord Chancellors to oversee and resolve inequities in the law, or those created by a lack of governing law. And interestingly, lawyers that engaged in Chancery practice were known as “solicitors in equity.”
Today, Mississippi is one of only three states (Tennessee and Delaware are the only other two) that maintain distinctly separate chancery courts, apart from courts of law. Our chancery courts are specialized courts of limited jurisdiction that receive their authority to hear and resolve certain disputes from the Mississippi State Constitution and some state law. See MISS. CONST. art. 6, § 169; MS § 9-5-81. As a result, Mississippi chancery courts are primarily charged with determining what is equitable, or fair in special, limited types of disputes. Accordingly, Mississippi chancery courts may generally hear, handle, and process “equity” cases involving:
- domestic and family matters such as divorce, child custody and support, property division, adoptions, and other related issues;
- testate and intestate successions involving the estates of decedents;
- issues involving minors [where a given county does not have a youth court];
- real estate disputes concerning title to land, land contracts, and injunctive matters; and
- commitments of mentally disable persons.
Because chancery courts are charged with handling equity matters, like the Lord Chancellors of medieval England, our chancery court system places wide discretion in the hands of a Chancellor, or Chancery Judge. Chancellors are granted the authority to decide all cases that come before the court. Unlike judges in state circuit courts, Chancellors generally hear cases without a jury. However, juries are sometimes allowed in paternity cases and will/probate contests, or a jury may serve as an advisory panel to Chancellor whereby the jury’s advisory decision is not binding on the Chancellor. Ultimately, the outcome of the case is determined by the Chancellor.
Not many people know, or even understand, how Mississippi’s court system is setup. Being only one of three states that still maintain a bifurcated state court system utilizing chancery courts, the court system in Mississippi is unique. The history and origin of chancery courts is interesting, and despite their lack of prominence in today’s American judicial system, chancery courts serve an important role in the administration of justice in Mississippi.
Devin Whitt is an experienced divorce and family attorney practicing in the state of Mississippi. His office is located in Ridgeland, Mississippi and he may be contacted at (601) 607-5055