Please explain with simple words. I'm interested only in their jurisdictions and functions:

  1. How did these 4 main courts' differ?

  2. What did the King's Bench cover?

Parliament.uk distinguishes only three of them:

As the treaty also created two separate jurisdictions, two separate courts known Common Pleas and King's Bench were formed during the 13th century - the former for civil litigation and the latter for cases of interest to the King (effectively the supreme court for criminal cases).


The Chancery gradually became a distinct court in the 15th century, where the Lord Chancellor provided redress for those unable to obtain it under the strict rules of common law.

  • 2
    There's a law stack too, if this doesn't work out – Ne Mo Apr 21 '19 at 9:51
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    "Please explain in simple words" is not a good start when reading law, or trying to understand history of legal institutions. I wonder if this suggestion will help: research the difference between common law and equity, and in particular, why equitable remedies were needed. You will get "how they differed". Info on Wiki is fine. – J Asia Apr 22 '19 at 5:56

The Court of Common Pleas

Wikipedia: Court of Common Pleas

This was created to hear "common pleas", that is cases between subject and subject which did not directly involve the king. It was also granted jurisdiction to review and amend the decisions of older courts. It was also known as the 'Common Bench'.

The Court of Common Pleas was headed by a Chief Justice, who sat at the head of a team of 'lesser justices'. The number of lesser justices varied over time.

Over time, the Court of King's Bench and the Court Of Exchequer came to encroach on the jurisdiction of the Court of Common Pleas.


  • Ralph V. Turner: The Origins of Common Pleas and King's Bench, The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 21, No. 3 pp 238-254.
  • UK National Archives Research Guide: "Legal Records Information 34"
  • UK National Archives Research Guide: "Legal Records Information 36"

The Court of King's Bench

Wikipedia: Court of King's Bench

This was founded later than the Court of Common Pleas, and was initially also meant to hear common pleas. The earliest records of the Court of King's Bench date from 1234. Over time, it came to specialise in handling pleas which were of of particular concern to the monarch. This would be things like cases that involved royal property interests or breach of the king's peace.

The Court of King's Bench also dealt with cases where it was claimed that an error of judgement had been made by another royal court (this is the sense in which it was 'effectively the supreme court for criminal cases' as mentioned on the Parliament UK website).

As the highest court of common law in England and Wales, the Court of King's Bench effectively divided jurisdiction between the 'Plea Side', which dealt with civil matters, and the 'Crown Side', which dealt with criminal cases.


The Court of Exchequer

Wikipedia: Court of Exchequer

This was the court responsible for the collection of the king's revenue and for judging those cases that affected the king's revenue. It was also known as the 'Exchequer of Pleas'.

Over time, its function expanded and the court also gained jurisdiction over common pleas involving other cases involving money. This included disputes about money between private litigants.


The Court of Chancery

Wikipedia: Court of Chancery

This was established to hear cases involving disputes about inheritance and related matters. This is where cases involving disputes about things like wills, lands, debts, trusts and marriage-settlements would be heard. They also heard cases involving disputes about apprenticeships.

The Court of Chancery was an equity court. As such, it operated under different rules (the 'principles of Equity' rather than the 'rule of Law').


  • UK National Archives Chancery equity suits before 1558
  • UK National Archives Research Guide: "Legal Records Information 22"
  • UK National Archives Research Guide: "Legal Records Information 28"
  • UK National Archives Research Guide: "Legal Records Information 42"


I haven't (yet) been able to find online copies of the UK National Archives Research Guides, so I've been working from my old paper copies. Other libraries and archives may also hold collections of these Research Guides.

  • It might benefit the section on the Court of Chancery to mention the Dickens novel Bleak House, which is a major indictment of that body. – Spencer Apr 21 '19 at 15:03
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    @Spencer I actually thought about that, but I'm not sure that Dickens' portrayal of the court in the 18th & 19th centuries is a fair representation of its function in earlier periods. – sempaiscuba Apr 21 '19 at 15:18

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