A Visitor, in United Kingdom law and history, is an overseer of an autonomous ecclesiastical or eleemosynary institution (i.e., 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. These institutions usually comprise cathedrals, chapels, colleges, universities and hospitals.
The British sovereign, the Lord Chancellor, the Lord President of the Council, the Archbishop of Canterbury, peers, diocesan bishops, etc. are the most common Visitors, though any person or office-holder can be nominated. 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. Bishops are usually the Visitors to their own cathedrals.
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 academic institution and its members. Traditionally the courts have been exempted from any jurisdiction over student complaints. As a result there had been much speculation that this contravened the Human Rights Act 1998. However in 2004 the Higher Education Act transferred the jurisdiction of the Visitor over student complaints in UK universities to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.
In the Republic of Ireland the Universities Act, 1997 redefines the appointment, function and responsibility of a Visitor. A Visitor may be appointed by the Government and must be either a current Judge of the High Court or a retired Judge of the High Court or Supreme Court.
The Governor of New South Wales is the Visitor to Sydney Grammar School pursuant to statute. The Governor is also the Visitor of the University of Wollongong by the University of Wollongong Act 1989 The Governor of NSW can exercise ceremonial duties only in their role as Visitor; this is mandated under the same Act.