This section is from the book "Popular Law Library Vol7 Equity Jurisprudence, Trusts, Equity Pleading", by Albert H. Putney. Also available from Amazon: Popular Law-Dictionary.
A master in chancery is a quasi judicial officer whose duty it is to aid the equity judge to make investigations as to the facts in the case, in order to aid the judge in the determination of the case before him, and to perform special ministerial acts, such as selling property. The investigations of the master are pursued by hearings held before him, which hearings are conducted very much as regular court proceedings.
The character and duties of this office were thus discussed by the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of Kimberly vs. Arms.8
"A master in chancery is an officer appointed by the court to assist it in various proceedings incidental to the progress of a cause before it, and is usually employed to take and state accounts, to take and report testimony, and to perform such duties as require computation of interest, the value of annuities, the amount of damages in particular cases, the auditing and ascertaining of liens upon property involved, and similar services. The information which he may communicate by his findings in such cases, upon the evidence presented to him, is merely advisory to the court, which it may accept and act upon or disregard in whole or in part, according to its own judgment as to the weight of the evidence. Basey vs. Gallagher, 87 U. S., 20; Wall., 670, 680 (22; 452; 453); Quinby vs. Conlon, 104 U. S., 420, 424 (26; 800; 801).
"In practice it is not usual for the court to reject the report of a master, with his findings upon the
7 For discussion of Receivers, see subject of Equity Jurisprudence, Vol. VII, Subject 20, Section 115. 8 129 U. S., 512 matter referred to him, unless exceptions are taken to them, and brought to its attention, and upon examination the findings are found unsupported or defective in some essential particular. Medsker vs. Bonebrake, 108 U. S., 66 (27; 654); Tilghman vs. Proctor, 125 U. S., 136, 149 (31; 664; 669); Callaghan vs. Myers, 128 U. S., 617, 666 (ante 547; 562). It is not within the general province of a master to pass upon all the issues in an equity case, nor is it competent for the court to refer the entire decision of a case to him without the consent of the parties. It cannot, of its own motion, or upon the request of one party, abdicate its duty upon any of its officers. But when the parties consent to the reference of a case to a master or other officer to hear and decide all the issues therein, and report his findings, both of fact and of law, and such reference is entered as a rule of the court, the master is clothed with very different powers from those which he exercises upon ordinary references without such consent; and his determinations are not subject to be set aside and disregarded at the mere discretion of the court. A reference, by consent of parties, of an entire case for the determination of all its issues, though not strictly a submission of the controversy to arbitration - a proceeding which is governed by special rules - is a submission of the controversy to a tribunal of the parties' own selection, to be governed in its conduct by the ordinary rules applicable to the administration of justice in tribunals established by law. Its findings, like those of an independent tribunal, are to be taken as presumptively correct, subject, indeed, to be reviewed under the reservation contained in the consent and order of the court when there has been manifest error in the consideration given to the evidence, or in the application of the law, but not otherwise.
"The reference of the whole case to a master, as here, has become in late years a matter of more common occurrence than formerly, though it has always been within the power of a court of chancery, with the consent of parties, to order such a reference. Haggett vs. Welsh, 1 Sim., 134; Dowse vs. Coxe, 3 Bing., 20; Prior vs. Hembrow, 8 Mees & W., 773. The power is incident to all courts of superior jurisdiction. New-comb vs. Wood, 97 U. S., 581, 583 (24; 1085; 1086). By statute, in nearly every State, provision has been made for such references of controversies at law. And there is nothing in the nature of the proceeding, or in the organization of a court of equity, which should preclude a resort to it in controversies involving equitable considerations."