Church of England courts operated under canon law, which was subordinate to common and statute law. These laws dealt with moral offences, that is the spiritual discipline of the personnel of the Church and their parishioners. Criminal offences such as felony, debt or assault were outside its purview, and the church court had no power to physically harm the body of a person, nor indeed to fine. Instead, the court had power to penance and excommunicate. In an age of greater conformity, the fact of excommunication or public penance in the church in front of one's neighbours were strong incentives to avoid the court's censure. Within these limitations, the church court offered a convenient means of litigation for the laity to pursue redress for a wide variety of complaints with a moral dimension, among which were numbered disputed wills and administration.
The consistory court itself was presided over by the Spiritual Chancellor who acted both as the bishop's Official Principal and as the Vicar General. The Vicar General exercised authority over the clergy in the court in what was termed office business. The Official Principal heard instance business, in this case such as disputed wills or unpaid legacies. The bishop's Registrar or his deputy issued citations and maintained the court records. Proctors acted as proxies, and represented and advised parties in dispute. Finally, the apparitor acted as summoner for the court.
Most un-contentious probate business was quickly processed through the probate court by surrogates of the chancellor, who administered oaths, validated copies of documents and proved wills. Proctors might act for executors or administrators who could not be present, to introduce inventories or perhaps renunciations of executorships into the court. Only if a will's validity or later administration became a matter of dispute would a testamentary cause or case be initiated, and submitted finally for judgement by the Official Principal acting as judge.