Attorney at law
Attorney at law or attorney-at-law, usually abbreviated in everyday speech to attorney, is the preferred term for a practising lawyer in certain jurisdictions, including South Africa (for certain lawyers), Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and the United States. In Canada, it is used only in Quebec as the English term for avocat. The term has its roots in the verb to attorn, meaning to transfer one's rights and obligations to another.
Previous usage in Ireland and Britain
The term was previously used in England and Wales and Ireland for lawyers who practised in the common law courts. They were officers of the courts and were under judicial supervision. Attorneys did not generally actually appear as advocates in the higher courts, a role reserved (as it still usually is) for barristers. Solicitors, those lawyers who practised in the courts of equity, were considered to be more respectable than attorneys and by the mid-19th century many attorneys were calling themselves solicitors.
The Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873 in England and Wales and the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Ireland) 1877 in Ireland redesignated all attorneys as solicitors. The term persists in legal usage in the United Kingdom solely in the instance of patent attorneys, who are legal professionals having sat professional qualifications and are expert in acting in all matters and procedures relating to patent law and practice. They may, or may not, be additionally either solicitors or barristers, or have come to the practice through a technical expert route (e.g. following a PhD and period of practice in a scientific or engineering field).
In the now three separate jurisdictions of England and Wales, Ireland, and Northern Ireland, references in any enactment to attorneys, with the exception of patent attorneys, must be construed as references to solicitors.
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- A. H. Manchester, A Modern Legal History of England and Wales, 1750–1850, Butterworths: London, 1980.
- Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873, s 87; Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Ireland) 1877, s 78; Jowitt's Dictionary of English Law 3rd edition, London: Thomson Reuters (Legal) Limited 2010, p. 190
- The Solicitors Act 1974, section 89(6) as read with section 87(1)
- Judicature (Northern Ireland) Act 1978, section 105(2)
- The Solicitors Act 1954, section 84