A Visitor, in English and Welsh law and history, is an overseer of an autonomous ecclesiastical or eleemosynary institution (i.e., a charitable institution set up for the perpetual distribution of the founder's alms and bounty) who can intervene in the internal affairs of that institution. These institutions mainly comprise cathedrals, chapels, colleges, universities and hospitals.
The British sovereign, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor, the Lord President of the Council, the Lord Chief Justice, peers, and diocesan bishops are the most common Visitors, though any person or office-holder can be nominated. The Queen usually delegates her visitatorial functions to the Lord Chancellor. During the reform of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the 19th century, Parliament ordered Visitations to the universities to make inquiries and to reform the university and college statutes. Bishops are usually the Visitors to their own cathedrals.
There is a ceremonial element to the role and the Visitor may also be called upon to give advice where an institution expresses doubt as to its powers under its charter and statutes. However, the most important function of the Visitor was within academic institutions, where the Visitor had to determine disputes arising between the institution and its members. The right of the visitor (and not the courts) to judge alleged deviations from the statutes of academic colleges was affirmed in the 1694 case of Philips v. Bury, where the House of Lords overruled the ruling of the Court of King's Bench. Traditionally the courts have been exempted from any jurisdiction over student complaints. There had been much speculation that this contravened the Human Rights Act 1998. However in 2004 the Higher Education Act transferred the jurisdiction of the Visitor over student complaints in English and Welsh universities to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.
Outside England and Wales
The position has also existed in universities in other countries which have followed the English and Welsh model (there being no such office in Scotland), although in many countries the Visitor's role in complaints has been transferred to other bodies.
In the Republic of Ireland, the Universities Act, 1997 redefines the appointment, function and responsibility of a Visitor. A Visitor may be appointed by the Government and must be either a current Judge of the High Court or a retired Judge of the High Court or Supreme Court.
The Governor of New South Wales is the Visitor to Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney pursuant to statute. The Governor is also the Visitor of the University of Wollongong by the University of Wollongong Act 1989. The Governor of NSW can only exercise ceremonial duties in their role as Visitor; this is mandated under the same Act.
In Canada, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, as a member of the Canadian Royal Family, has served as Visitor to Upper Canada College, in Toronto, Ontario, since 1959. Also in Canada, the Queen's Representative in Ontario, His Honour the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, serves as the Visitor to the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. A similar arrangement has the Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador serve as the Visitor to Memorial University of Newfoundland  On a slightly higher level, the Governor General of Canada automatically serves as the official Visitor of McGill University. The Anglican Bishop of Montreal is Visitor to Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec.
In India, according to the IIT act the President of India is the visitor of the 7 Indian Institutes of Technology.
In the United States, the office of "visitor," from its early use at some colleges and other institutions, evolved specifically into that of a trustee. Certain colleges and universities, particularly of an earlier, often colonial founding, are governed by boards of Visitors, often chaired by a Rector (rather than regents or trustees, etc.). Examples include the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia.
- Ruthin School whose visitor is Queen Elizabeth II, an example of how the British Sovereign is a Visitor to academic institutions
- Apostolic visitor
- Provincial episcopal visitor
- Privy Council – visitatorial powers
- Reforming the Office of Lord Chancellor – visitatorial powers
- An Example University School Board of Visitors at NJIT SOM
- William Blackstone (1753), Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 1, Chapter XVIII "Of Corporations", Section 3
- Opinion of John Holt (King's Bench) (Microsoft Word file)
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- Sydney Grammar School Act 1854 (NSW), section 14
- UNIVERSITY OF WOLLONGONG ACT 1989. Austlii.edu.au (30 March 2012). Retrieved 14 May 2012.
- The Lieutenant Governor of Ontario - Honours and Awards. Lt.gov.on.ca (24 February 2012). Retrieved 14 May 2012.
- RSNL1990 CHAPTER M-7 - MEMORIAL UNIVERSITY ACT. Assembly.nl.ca. Retrieved 14 May 2012.
- News: McGill University congratulates former Principal on being named Governor-General of Canada. Mcgill.ca (8 July 2010). Retrieved 14 May 2012.