A visitor, in English and Welsh law and history, is an overseer of an autonomous ecclesiastical or eleemosynary institution, often a charitable institution set up for the perpetual distribution of the founder's alms and bounty, who can intervene in the internal affairs of that institution. Those with such visitors are mainly cathedrals, chapels, schools, colleges, universities, and hospitals.
Many visitors hold their role ex officio, by serving as the British sovereign, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor, the Lord President of the Council, the Lord Chief Justice, or the bishop of a particular diocese. Others can be appointed in various ways, depending on the constitution of the organization in question. Bishops are usually the visitors to their own cathedrals. The Queen usually delegates her visitatorial functions to the Lord Chancellor.
During the reform of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the 19th century, Parliament ordered visitations to the universities to make inquiries and to reform the university and college statutes.
There is a ceremonial element to the role, and the visitor may also be called upon to give advice where an institution expresses doubt as to its powers under its charter and statutes. However, the most important function of the visitor was within academic institutions, where the visitor had to determine disputes arising between the institution and its members.
The right of the visitor, and not the courts, to adjudge on alleged deviations from the statutes of academic colleges was affirmed in the case of Philips v. Bury, 1694, in which the House of Lords overruled a judgment of the Court of King's Bench.
The position has also existed in universities in other countries which have followed the English and Welsh model (there being no such office in Scotland), although in many countries the visitor's role in complaints has been transferred to other bodies.
In the Republic of Ireland, the Universities Act, 1997 redefines the appointment, function and responsibility of a visitor. Where a university does not have a visitor, a visitor may be appointed by the government and must be either a current or retired judge of the High Court or a retired judge of the Supreme Court.
In Fiji, the Court of Appeal in Muma v USP declared that in default of appointment, the country's president was the visitor of a university established by the Queen, since Fiji had subsequently become a republic.
The Governor of Victoria is the visitor to all Victorian universities, but has only ceremonial duties.
The Governor of New South Wales is the visitor to Macquarie University, Sydney Grammar School, and the University of Sydney pursuant to statute. The governor is also the visitor of the University of Wollongong by the University of Wollongong Act 1989. Only ceremonial duties can be exercised by the Governor of NSW in his or her role as visitor; this is mandated under the same Act.
Also in Canada, the Queen's representative in Ontario, the Lieutenant Governor, serves as the visitor to the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. A similar arrangement has the Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador serving as the visitor to Memorial University of Newfoundland. On a slightly higher level, the Governor General of Canada automatically serves as the official visitor of McGill University. The Anglican Bishop of Montreal is visitor to Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec while the Anglican Bishop of Huron is the visitor to Renison University College in Waterloo, Ontario.
In the United States, the office of visitor, from its early use at some colleges and other institutions, evolved specifically into that of a trustee. Certain colleges and universities, particularly of an earlier, often colonial founding, are governed by boards of visitors, often chaired by a rector (rather than regents or trustees, etc.). Examples include the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia.
In Nigeria, the visitor in publicly-funded tertiary institution is the most senior member of government. This is usually the president in federally-funded universities or the governor for state-funded universities.
In the Jill Paton Walsh continuation of the Lord Peter Wimsey series of detective novels, The Late Scholar, Lord Peter (now the Duke of Denver) is the visitor of the fictional St Severin's College in Oxford, which is central to the plot.