Photograph of a barrister (Catalogue reference: COPY 1/414/843)

This is a brief guide to researching records of a dispute or problem taken to court (civil litigation). The National Archives holds extensive records of civil litigation. Online cataloguing is ongoing, so try searching for a person by name in Discovery, our cataloguea search tool with descriptions of tens of millions of documents from the UK central government, law courts, and other national bodies, within the relevant series. Otherwise the records can be difficult to find and understand. They can also be cumbersome, and you might find it useful to photograph records using a digital camera.

  • What do I need to know before I start?

    • Try to find out:

      • at which court the action took place and when
      • the date when the case was heard
      • the names of the litigants
  • What records can I see online?

    • There are no significant collections of records of civil litigants available online.

  • What records can I find at The National Archives at Kew?

    • A few sections of the following records, but by no means all, have been catalogued by name.

      Start by trying a surname search in our catalogue, before going on to search by range of years. Contemporary spellings are used, so try using wild cards when searching.

      The early stages of 15th century and early 16th century law suits are well catalogued, but later dates and initial pleadings after 1558 may require use of contemporary indexes available at The National Archives.

    • Records of Chancery (1386-1875)

      Search our catalogue in C, as described above.


    • Records of the Supreme Court of Judicature (1875-2002)

      Search our catalogue in J, as described above.


Did you know?

Civil litigation covers legal disputes between two parties over matters such as land, property rights, debt, inheritance, trusts and frauds.

Civil litigants would have their cases heard in various courts of law, including common law courts and courts of equity. These different systems of justice co-existed until they were brought together in 1875.

The records of the equity courts are full and informative, and are a good resource for social, family and local history. It requires expertise to understand common law records, and they rarely contain useful detail.

19th century litigants were often described by their full name, including any middle names, so searching using shortened versions of their name may not be successful.