In different jurisdictions do they have different meanings? How/when did the roles diverge?

Is it more or a research assistance position, or an administrative/secretarial one of doing the day to day busy work of filing papers into case files, listing hearings, etc.?

  • You may mean to define clerk, as the word can mean hugely different things in different contexts. Oct 28 at 19:12
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    Even in courts, there are both types of clerk.
    – cpast
    Oct 28 at 19:26
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    I couldn’t define clerk because I don’t actually know what it means which is largely what the question is asking. Oct 28 at 20:15
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    @phoog yes but while that might give the meaning of the word, it seems that the role called by that word in law seems at least in some places to have taken on further customary aspects not covered by its dictionary meaning. Oct 28 at 21:59
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    Perhaps, but a law dictionary might be more informative.
    – phoog
    Oct 28 at 22:26

2 Answers 2


In the law of , a "clerk" is usually a civil servant who helps to run the court. Advocates (barristers) also have clerks, who do administrative work for them.

The main such official in a sheriff court is the Sheriff Clerk. The High Court of Justiciary and Court of Session - which are the Supreme Courts - share a Principal Clerk. In either case, there will be other officials under them, who might or might not also have titles including the word "clerk". All of the administrative work of the court is somehow done by these people, and some roles will entail more legal knowledge than others. The person who is marshalling proceedings in the actual courtroom will be a clerk. Some court orders, mainly procedural in nature, can be signed by a clerk on behalf of a judge.

Sometimes, there are "law clerks" who support the judges themselves, by preparing summaries of upcoming cases, carrying out background research, taking notes at oral proceedings, assisting with assembling the final opinion text, and so on. Currently, there are not very many of these. The Supreme Courts have essentially a pool system, and there are specific clerks who work to the two most senior judges.

In a Justice of the Peace court, where there are lay magistrates, there will be someone helping them with matters of law. This person is not called a clerk, but a "legal adviser".

Additionally, the second most senior judge in the country is the Lord Justice Clerk. The name is because this office originated as a learned advisor, a "clerk of justiciary", whose legal assistance to the judges became so important that the role was eventually elevated to the bench anyway. (In the Middle Ages, a "justiciar" was a royal official who was not only the king's delegate for general administration, but had jurisdiction as a judge over certain public offences such as murder. Some were appointed and in other cases it was hereditary, so having a legal expert assistant was important. The modern successor is the High Court of Justiciary, hence its name.) The administrative side was split off in the nineteenth century, to the aforementioned Principal Clerk, leaving the LJC as solely a judge, but retaining the title due to historical inertia.

There are a few other offices that include the word, like Lord Clerk Register, which nowadays has few responsibilities but was formerly an important job of being in charge of all public records.

These all basically originate in the word "clerk", or Latin clericus. The rough sense is "a literate person who acts as an assistant for somebody else". There was considerable historical overlap between being able to read and write, and being an ordained member of the clergy. The term "clerk in holy orders" is still used in Anglican ecclesiastical law to mean an ordained person (deacon, priest or bishop).

  • the conceptual etymological treatment of the word which explains fundamentally how it can cover such a broad and varied range of different positions which is relevant to any English speaking jurisdiction that would employ the word. Thanks for answering Oct 29 at 17:06

The role of judicial law clerks is described in Mitchell McInnes, Janet Bolton & Natalie Derzko, "Clerking at the Supreme Court of Canada" (1994)). They describe how law clerks write legal memoranda, are available for the judge to discuss legal issues with, and how the judge may involve the clerk in the judgment writing process.

The Supreme Court of Canada advertises the duties as follows:

Under the direction of a judge, a law clerk shall research points of law, prepare memoranda of law and generally assist the judge in the work of the Court. The work requires someone who demonstrates initiative and has the ability and willingness to occasionally work long hours under tight and competing deadlines.

When someone talks about a "clerkship" they're talking about the above role. These are available throughout the various levels of the judiciary in Canada and the United States, and in state courts. The Wikipedia article on this position presents further comparative descriptions from around the world.

There is a separate role in many courts also called a "clerk" that are not involved in legal research. These clerks assist in the logistics and management of hearings in court. They help accept and organize exhibits. They may collect the names and pronunciation of the parties and counsel before the case is called. They may help getting the case material to the judge(s) at their bench before the hearing begins. They may assist in scheduling. They may maintain a record of proceedings.

  • Thanks, very helpful. But how are these two types of clerks differentiated? Is the latter type what some might call a “court usher”? Oct 29 at 1:27

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