Department Functions: Hears Specialized Non-jury Cases
The Master-in-Equity facilitates relatively quick and inexpensive means of litigation resolution for non-jury matters. The Master hears most foreclosure cases and a substantial number of civil, non-jury matters as well. This is the only South Carolina court in which no action may be initiated. Each case heard by a Master is assigned by the South Carolina Circuit Court, using the procedural device known as an Order of Reference.
The Governor, with approval of the General Assembly, appoints Masters-in-Equity to six-year terms. As a division of the state's Circuit Courts, the Master-in-Equity's Office is state mandated, but county funded.
This office does:
- Offer the public a quick and inexpensive way of having their "day in court."
- Hear cases for mortgage foreclosures, land partitions, judicial sales, actions to collect a judgment and complex cases as assigned by the Circuit Court.
This office does not:
- Conduct Sheriff's Office sales
- Conduct delinquent tax property sales
- Chancery - A court developed under English common law when courts of law were considered incompetent or unable to render justice for the public.
- Equity Law - A legal system which supplements the common law or justice that is applied in circumstances not covered by law.
Historically, equity cases were heard by "chancery" courts. These courts were developed under English common law to deal with cases when courts of law were considered incompetent or unable to render justice to the parties.
The South Carolina Constitution of 1790 gave the legislature the authority to establish courts of law and equity. Until 1868, South Carolina had two parallel court systems-one for common law cases and the other for equity law cases. Over time, many of the distinctions between "law" and "equity" faded and the powers of the courts merged. The South Carolina Constitution of 1868 officially merged the Common Law and Chancery Courts into the Court of Common Pleas.
In 1979, the South Carolina General Assembly established new procedures for a statewide Master-in-Equity system. The Master may serve in several capacities within the trial court system and may be asked to rule on particular issues or on an entire case. The Master then makes a recommendation to the Circuit Court or renders a final decision which may be appealed to the Circuit Court or State Supreme Court.
Records for the South Carolina Court of Chancery date back to 1709. The oldest Court of Equity records are from 1851, while the records of the Court of Common Pleas date from 1869. These records are stored at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in Columbia.
Judge Jasper Cureton, a member of the South Carolina Court of Appeals and a former Master-in-Equity for Richland County, has written an essay describing the history of the master's court.