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, and the United States. In Canada, it is used only in Quebec. 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
Historically, the term was used in the jurisdictions of England and Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland. The title has been replaced by solicitor, but still appears in old statutes in these jurisdictions.
England and Wales
The term was also used in England and Wales for lawyers who practised in the common law courts. They were officers of the courts and were under judicial supervision. 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. In 1873, the Supreme Court of Judicature Act abolished the term "attorney", and attorneys were redesignated solicitors. Attorneys did not generally actually appear as advocates in the higher courts, a role reserved (as it still usually is) for barristers.
Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland
In both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, various pre-partition statutes dealing with the whole of Ireland and governing court structures, procedures, and court officers remain in force, such as the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Ireland) 1877.
References in any statutory provision in force in Northern Ireland to attorneys must be construed as references to solicitors of the Court of Judicature.
In the Republic of Ireland, references in any enactment to an attorney (or proctor) are to be construed as a reference to a solicitor.
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- A. H. Manchester, A Modern Legal History of England and Wales, 1750–1850, Butterworths: London, 1980.
- Jowitt's Dictionary of English Law 3rd edition, London: Thomson Reuters (Legal) Limited 2010, p. 190
- The Solicitors Act 1974, section 90(4)
- 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