A visitor, in English and Welsh law and history, is an overseer of an autonomous ecclesiastical or eleemosynary institution, often 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. Those with such visitors are mainly cathedrals, chapels, schools, colleges, universities, and hospitals.
Many visitors hold their role ex officio, by serving as the British sovereign, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor, the Lord President of the Council, the Lord Chief Justice, or the bishop of a particular diocese. Others can be appointed in various ways, depending on the constitution of the organization in question. Bishops are usually the visitors to their own cathedrals. 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.
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 adjudge on alleged deviations from the statutes of academic colleges was affirmed in the case of Philips v. Bury, 1694, in which the House of Lords overruled a judgement 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 Visitors over the grievances of students 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. Where a university does not have 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 Macquarie University, 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. Only ceremonial duties can be exercised by the Governor of NSW in his or her role as visitor; this is mandated under the same Act.
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 serving 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 while the Anglican Bishop of Huron is the visitor to Renison University College in Waterloo, Ontario.
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
- William Blackstone (1753), Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 1, Chapter XVIII "Of Corporations", Section 3
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- Universities Act, 1997
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