SERJEANT-AT-LAW, the name (see above) given to what was formerly an order of the highest rank of barristers at the English or Irish bar. The word is a corruption of serviens ad legem, as distinguished from apprenticius ad legem, or utter barrister, who probably originally obtained his knowledge of law by serving a kind of apprenticeship to a serjeant. When the order of serjeants was instituted is unknown, but it certainly dates from a very remote period. The authority of serjeant counters or countors (i.e. pleaders, those who frame counts in pleading) is treated in the Mirror of Justices, and they are named in 3 Edw. I. c. 29. They may possibly have been the representatives of the conteurs mentioned in the great customary of Normandy. The position of the serjeant had become assured when Chaucer wrote. One of the characters in the Canterbury Tales is
|“||A serjeant of the law, wary and wise,|
|That often had y-been at the parvis.”|
Serjeants (except king's serjeants) were created by writ of summons under the great seal, and wore a special and distinctive dress, the chief feature of which was the coif, a white lawn or silk skull-cap, afterwards represented by a round piece of black silk at the top of the wig. They enjoyed a social precedence after knights bachelors and before companions of the Bath and other orders. In this they differed from king's counsel, who had simply professional as distinguished from social rank. Socially the serjeant had precedence, professionally the king's counsel, unless indeed, as was often the case, a patent of precedence was granted to the former. The serjeants at the Irish bar had precedence next after the law officers of the crown. Till past the middle of the 19th century a limited number of the serjeants were called “king's (queen's) serjeants.” They were appointed by patent and summoned to parliament. Until 1814 the two senior king's serjeants had precedence of even the attorney-general and solicitor-general. It was the custom for serjeants on their appointment to give gold rings with mottoes to their colleagues. Down to 1845 the order enjoyed a very valuable monopoly of practice. The serjeants had the right of exclusive audience as leading counsel in the Court of Common Pleas. In 1834 a royal mandate of William IV. attempted to abolish this privilege, but in 1840 the judicial committee of the privy council declared the mandate informal and invalid. The monopoly was finally abolished in 1845 by Act of Parliament. For at least 600 years the judges of the superior courts of common law were always serjeants, but by the Judicature Act 1873 no person appointed a judge of the High Court of Justice or the Court of Appeal was required to take or have taken the degree of serjeant-at-law. The serjeants had their own inn of court known as Serjeants' Inn, which was formerly in two divisions, one in Fleet Street and one in Chancery Lane. In 1758 the members of the former joined the latter. In 1877 the society was dissolved, the inn sold to one of the members and the proceeds divided among the existing serjeants. The order is now extinct.
See Serviens ad Legem, by Mr Serjeant Manning; and The Order of the Coif, by Mr Serjeant Pulling.
- The parvis was the porch of old St Paul's, where each serjeant had his particular pillar at which he held interviews with his clients.