The Court of Exchequer (Ireland) or the Irish Exchequer of Pleas, was one of the senior courts of common law in Ireland. It was the mirror image of the equivalent court in England. The Court of Exchequer was one of the four royal courts of justice which gave their name to the building in which they were located, which is still called the Four Courts, and in use as a Courthouse, in Dublin.
According to Elrington Ball the Irish Court of Exchequer was established by 1295, and by 1310 it was headed by the Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer assisted by at least one associate Baron of the Exchequer. The Court seems to have functioned for some years without a Chief Baron. David de Offington, former Sheriff of County Dublin, was appointed the first Baron in 1294, followed by Richard de Soham the following year, and William de Meones in 1299. The first Chief Baron was Walter de Islip, an English-born judge and statesman who also served as Lord Treasurer of Ireland.
The early Barons were usually English-born, with a record of public service in Ireland. Although they ranked as High Court judges, they were not required to be properly qualified barristers, and in 1400 complaints were made about their lack of legal expertise. An Act of the Irish Parliament in 1421 was aimed at those Barons who were described ominously as "illiterate men performing office in the Exchequer through deputies". In 1442 it was suggested that the administration of the Irish Government would be improved if the Chief Baron was a properly trained lawyer. This criticism was principally aimed at Michael Gryffin, the incumbent Chief Baron, who had no legal qualifications for the job.
The Court of Exchequer was originally located in a building called Collett's Inn, which is thought to have been situated roughly on present-day South Great George's Street in Dublin city centre. Collett's was destroyed in a raid by the O'Tooles and O'Byrne clans from County Wicklow early in the fourteenth century. Later in the century the Court, together with the Court of Common Pleas (Ireland), moved for a few decades to Carlow, which was then closer to the centre of the Pale (that part of Ireland which was under secure English rule) than was Dublin, but local disturbances in Carlow eventually brought it back to Dublin.
The Court in the eighteenth centuryEdit
Although the workload of the Court of Exchequer in the early centuries was not as heavy as that of the Court of King's Bench, it became notorious for slowness and inefficiency; an eighteenth-century Baron, John St Leger, spoke of the Court being in a state of "confusion and disorganisation almost past remedy". Due to its inefficiency, it lost a good deal of business to the other courts, especially to the Court of Chancery, in the course of the eighteenth century. The death of Thomas Dalton, the Chief Baron in 1730 was believed by his friends to have been hastened by his heavy workload.
The Court of Exchequer's reputation was further damaged by its judgment in Sherlock v. Annesley. In itself, a routine property dispute between two cousins, the lawsuit revived the long-standing quarrel between the English House of Lords and the Irish House of Lords as to which House was the final court of appeal from the Irish courts. The decision of the Barons of the Exchequer that they were obliged to implement the decree of the English House infuriated the Irish House, which imprisoned the Barons for contempt of Parliament. To resolve the matter the British Government passed the Declaratory Act 1719, removing the power of the Irish House of Lords to hear appeals. This Act became notorious in Ireland as the Sixth of George I, and quite unfairly the judges of the Court of Exchequer bore the brunt of the blame for it: as one of the Barons, John Pocklington, remarked: "a flame burst forth, and the country's last resentment was visited upon us".
The Court in the nineteenth centuryEdit
By the mid-nineteenth century, the Exchequer had overtaken the Court of King's Bench as the busiest of the courts of common law , and the death of Chief Baron Woulfe, in 1840, like that of his predecessor Thomas Dalton in the previous century, was widely blamed on his crushing workload (indeed Woulfe, who suffered from chronic ill health, had been warned that the job would kill him, and had been most reluctant to accept it).
Traditionally the judge holding office as third Baron tended to resist promotion as his office, though junior, had a number of fees and perquisites attached which were not available to more senior judges.
On the passing of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Ireland) 1877, the Court of Exchequer was merged with the other Courts of common law and the Court of Chancery (Ireland), and became a division of the High Court of Justice in Ireland. In a further reorganisation of the Court system in 1897 the Exchequer Division was abolished. The last Chief Baron, Christopher Palles, retained his rank until he retired in 1916, by which time his reputation for judicial eminence was so high that, despite his advanced age (he was eighty-four) and increasing physical frailty, the Government only accepted his resignation with great reluctance.
- Commissioners of Inquiry into Courts of Justice in Ireland (1817). Second report (Exchequer Court) with appendix. Sessional papers. Vol. 11 10. Retrieved 10 September 2016.
- Ball, F. Elrington. The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921. London: John Murray, 1926
- Statute of 1421 Henry V c.12
- Kenny, Colum King's Inns and the Kingdom of Ireland Dublin Irish Academic Press 1992 pp. 10-13
- Letter from Hugh Boulter, Archbishop of Armagh to Sir Robert Walpole 24 June 1730
- Delaney, V.T. H Christopher Palles Allen Figgis and Co Dublin 1960
- Delaney Christopher Palles