How to look for records of... Criminal courts in England and Wales from 1972

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1. Introduction

This research guide covers records of the Crown and Magistrates’ courts that replaced the assizes and quarter sessions following their abolition in 1971. It does not cover civil records such as the tribunals service (for example, child support, social security), county courts (civil litigation) or the civil division of the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

2. Abolition of the assize and quarter sessions

The ‘Report of the Royal Commission on Assizes and Quarter Sessions’ (Sessional Papers, House of Commons, Cmnd 4153, 1966-69, XXVIII, 433) was published in 1969. Chaired by Lord Beeching, the three year investigation identified many problems with the existing criminal justice system. To improve efficiency the report recommended its replacement with a nationally administered court and the Courts Act 1971 incorporated most of the recommendations. As a result, a higher criminal court known as the Crown Court of the Supreme Court of Judicature replaced the assizes and quarter sessions in 1972.

3. Records not yet transferred to The National Archives

All indictments (with the exception of the Central Criminal Court) and some case files have not yet been transferred to The National Archives (see table below). They remain in the custody of HM Courts and Tribunal Service. For information about these records contact the Ministry of Justice.

4. Crown court records held by The National Archives

Crown courts hear serious indictable offences such as robbery, rape and murder. A judge has overall responsibility for the court with a jury of twelve people providing the verdict. They also hear referrals for sentencing and appeals from lower courts.

For many of the Crown courts, The National Archives holds samples of surviving case files, and the indictments for most cases.

Liverpool and Manchester Crown courts are anomalies. They were established in 1956 following recommendations that they would combat a rise in crime in these areas. These new courts took responsibility for the quarter sessions work as well as criminal assize work for south Lancashire. The assizes work for the west Derby area was assigned to Liverpool and the assizes work of Salford was assigned to Manchester. Liverpool and Manchester Crown Courts also have stopping up orders in J 108 and J 109. To find the records of these courts prior to 1972, look under Lancashire in the research guide Assizes: key to series for English criminal trials, 1559-1971.

Not all of the documents in the record series below have been transferred to The National Archives because each Crown court transfers documents at a different rate.

Researchers are strongly advised to check whether the Crown court records you are seeking are held by The National Archives, or are still retained by the court service. You can check if the records you are seeking are held by The National Archives by consulting Discovery, our catalogue.

Crown Court Case Files Indictments Other
Acton J 238 J 239
Aylesbury J 240 J 241
Beverley J 224 J 225
Birmingham J 190 J 191
Bodmin J 305 J 306
Bolton J 208 J 209
Bournemouth J 307 J 308
Bradford J 226 J 227
Bristol J 309 J 310
Burnley J 236 J 237
Cambridge J 242 J 243
Canterbury J 244 J 245
Carlisle J 289 J 290
Central Criminal Court J 267 J 268, J 336 index J 164
Chelmsford J 265 J 266
Chester J 301 J 302
Chichester J 246 J 247
Coventry J 192 J 193
Croydon J 248 J 249
Derby J 194 J 195
Doncaster J 228 J 229
Dudley J 254 J 174
Durham J 230 J 231
Exeter J 311 J 312
Gloucester J 313 J 314
Grimsby J 259 J 260
Guildford J 250 J 251
Harrow J 263 J 264
Inner London Crown Court J 269 J 270
Ipswich J 261 J 262
Isleworth J 252 J 253
Kingston-upon-Hull J 220 J 221
Kingston-upon-Thames J 279 J 280
Knightsbridge J 216 J 217
Leeds J 291 J 292
Leicester J 196 J 197
Lewes J 277 J 278
Lincoln J 234 J 235
Liverpool J 222 J 223 J 108
Luton J 218 J 219
Maidstone J 206 J 207
Manchester J 287 J 288 J 109
Merthyr Tydfil J 303 J 304
Middlesex Guildhall J 275 J 276
Newcastle upon Tyne J 212 J 213
Newport (Isle of Wight) J 315 J 316
Northampton J 257 J 258
Norwich J 273 J 274
Nottingham J 188 J 189
Oxford J 186 J 187
Peterborough J 184 J 185
Plymouth J 319 J 320
Portsmouth J 317 J 318
Preston J 285 J 286
Reading J 202 J 203
Salisbury J 329 J 330
Sheffield J 214 J 215
Shrewsbury J 182 J 183
Snaresbrook J 200 J 201
Southampton J 327 J 328
Southwark J 204 J 205
St Albans J 271 J 272
Stafford J 180 J 181
Stoke-on-Trent J 178 J 179
Swindon J 325 J 326
Taunton J 323 J 324
Teesside J 283 J 284
Truro J 321 J 322
Wakefield J 281 J 282
Warrington J 333 J 334
Warwick J 176 J 177
Weymouth J 295 J 296
Winchester J 297 J 298
Wolverhampton J 173 J 175
Wood Green J 198 J 199
Woolwich J 210 J 211
Worcester J 255 J 256
York J 232 J 233
Cardiff J 299 J 300
Newport (Gwent) J 293 J 294
Swansea J 331 J 332

Contact details for the Crown Courts can be found from the Courts Service website.

5. Types of records

5.1 Indictments

The indictment is an important document and contains key information about the progress of the trial, outcome and appeal (if relevant). The indictment was formally annotated during the trial thereby providing a concise account of the events and decisions that occurred. If the case went to appeal, the indictment will record the outcome.

Information contained on the indictment includes:

  • defendant’s name, sex and date of birth
  • whether bail or custody was granted
  • date committed for trial, conviction and sentence date
  • trial dates (from/to) added upon completion of the trial
  • the identity of the firm of shorthand writers
  • name of the Crown court who will hear the case
  • judge’s name
  • defence counsel names of barristers and solicitors
  • prosecution counsel names of barristers and solicitors
  • offences charged to the defendant listed as separate ‘counts’
  • defendant’s plea to the charges
  • jury’s verdict
  • sentence or order
  • appeal details – date of appeal and whether grounds for appeal granted or refused

A copy indictment, the larger of the two documents, is usually attached to the indictment and includes a list of witnesses called to trial, along with repeating much of the information contained within the initial indictment.

The case number is recorded on each indictment and will look similar to ‘721717’. The ’72’ denotes the year, in this case 1972, and the 1717 denotes the 1717th case heard by the Crown court that year. Some indictments are closed for longer periods, for example, indictments that identify minors.

5.2 Case files

Not all individual case files are kept permanently. Selection is based on files that record more serious crimes, cases that attracted public interest, or were of significance (either legally or historically), or where the accused was eminent or infamous or if the case generated widespread public concern. Files have also been selected to represent the wide variety of cases heard by the Crown courts.

Information contained within a case file varies from one file to another but can include: committal proceedings, court logs, police statements, copy indictment, evidence for the prosecution, list of witnesses with their statements and depositions, list of exhibits produced in court, photographs of the crime scene, sentence, and detail of appeal.

To find a case file search our catalogue by name (surname followed by a comma and then first name), for example ‘Smith, John’. To narrow your search, you can add the department or series, if the name of the Crown court is known (for example Isleworth is J 252). The naming of a defendant within our catalogue does not imply guilt.

6. Transcripts

Court stenographers recorded the proceedings in short hand known as computer aided transcription notes. These were filed separately from the case file and not kept permanently. However, if the defendant lodged an appeal within five years of the conviction then long hand notes were recreated from the original computer aided transcription notes for the appeal and may be found on the criminal appeal case file (see Appeals below).

7. Appeals

The Court of Appeal (criminal division) was established in 1966 and replaced the system of petitioning the Secretary of State for Home Affairs. The records of the Court of Appeal (criminal division) and its predecessors are in J 81: Registers (1908-1990) and J 82: Case Papers (1945-1993). For further information see the research guide Supreme Court: Appeal cases after 1875.

The highest court of appeal is the Supreme Court and formerly it was the House of Lords. For records of House of Lords cases, contact the Parliamentary Archives.

8. Magistrates’ courts

Magistrates’ courts deal with the majority of all civil and criminal cases, estimated at 95%, which are the less serious, or ‘summary’ offences, some of which can carry a six month prison sentence (12 months for consecutive sentences). Defendants are tried by a single magistrate or a panel of magistrates rather than a jury.

Examples of the types of cases heard are drunk and disorderly, criminal damage, and common assault. Contact details for Magistrates’ courts can be found from the Courts Service website.

9. Records of Magistrates’ courts

Records of Magistrates’ courts are not held by The National Archives. Preserved records of Magistrates courts are held locally. The types of records that may be found include:

  • court registers (including juvenile and youth courts)
  • pardons
  • bail registers

To find records held in local archives, search our catalogue, using the name of the court or just the term ‘Magistrates’, and refine your results using the filters.

Find contact details for archives elsewhere using Find an archive.

10. Further reading

The following recommended publications are available in the The National Archives’ Library.

Richard Beeching, Royal Commission on Assizes and Quarter Sessions 1966-69: Report (London, 1969)

Michael Zander, Cases and materials on the English legal system (London, 10th edition, 2007)

Guide reference: Legal Records Information 35