The Supreme Court of Judicature, established in 1875, incorporated the existing central law courts, common law and equity, into a new High Court of Justice, with a separate Appeal Court. The names of some of the old courts - for example Chancery or Queen's/King Bench - remained as titles of divisions of the new court but the division of work between them was intended to be purely a matter of convenience as they all exercised concurrent jurisdiction.
2. Jurisdiction of Chancery Division
Chancery Division's specific responsibilities (as defined in the act 36 and 37 Vict. c. 66 s. 34) included the administration of the estates of the deceased, partnerships, mortgages, and other charges on land, trusts, real estate and the wardship of infants. Queen's Bench Division dealt with many civil cases as well, including contractual disputes, libel, debt and personal injury and some cases might be dealt with by either division.
Little detailed information survives on most cases after 1945. Following the recommendations of the Report of the Committee on Legal Records (Cmnd. 3084, 1966), Chancery Division records which are arranged by type - such as orders, pleadings or affidavits - are no longer transferred to The National Archives in bulk, but only a 2% random sample of all cases, together with certain other cases considered to be of historical interest. Such records are now in J 83 and J 84 and consist of dossiers containing documents in the case. Confidential papers are closed for various periods. Shorthand notes of trials are not kept.
Civil cases coming before the High Court were entered into the Cause Books of the appropriate division and given an action number - the year, the initial letter of the plaintiff's name or title of the case and a running number e.g. 1900 L 59. The Cause Books of Chancery Division 1875-1880 are in C 32. After 1880, the Cause Books have been destroyed, with the exception of a 10 yearly sample (1880 to 1940), together with the writs of summons (endorsed with the plaintiff's statement of claim) for the same years (to 1930) in J 89.
Beyond giving the names of plaintiff and defendant and their solicitors, these Cause books, which do not record final judgements, often merely give the dates of appearances and sometimes the dates when pleadings were filed. Only a minority of actions started came to formal trial.
3. Starting a search: decrees and orders
The best place to begin a search is with the indexes to the Entry Books of Decrees and Orders in J 15, covering 1876-1955. (Entry Books after 1956 have been destroyed.) The indexes are on open access at The National Archives. They are arranged by name of plaintiff or title of cause. Once you find a relevant index entry, you will need to note down the year, the series (A or B), the number of the order and whether it is written or printed. (If the number is written across the two columns it refers to an 'order of course'. Most of these have been destroyed. See J 89/18/1-43 for surviving orders of course.) With this information, go to the series list for J 15.
For each year, until 1932, there are two main series of Entry Books. The A series covers cases whose titles begin with the letters A-K and the B series for those beginning L-Z. Within each of the A and B series, until 1921, there are two sets of running numbers: one for printed orders and the other for written ones. Use the information noted from the index to work out which volume you will need to order to get the text of the decree or order.
In any given case there may be a series of entries, extending over a period of years. These entries will not necessarily reveal the final settlement, which may have been reached out of court. The Entry Books do, however, include some Appeal Court and House of Lords judgments.
The pleadings are much less informative than pre-1875 Chancery Proceedings. They are documents filed by order of the court if the action was set down for trial: they were meant to be confined to material facts in the case and do not include evidence. Pleadings may include formal statements made by the parties in the case, certificates of cost, notices of change of solicitor, etc. Pleadings are in J 54 for the period 1876-1942. After 1942, only a 2% sample has been retained, in J 83 and J 84. They are arranged by date of filing, in alphabetical order under the plaintiff's name or title of the cause. Pleadings in any particular case may be filed at different dates.
These are sworn written statements submitted in evidence (often merely common form), relating to serving of writs, production of documents, etc. Sometimes, however, they can be very informative. Affidavits are in J 4 for 1876-1945. Those after 1945 have been destroyed. As they are currently stored off site, you need to give three working days' notice before they can be produced for you. The many affidavits in a particular case may be difficult to piece together as they are arranged by date of filing, then alphabetically by name of plaintiff/cause title, with indexes in IND 1.
These are statements on oath used in evidence. They are filed with the pleadings in J 54 until 1880, and are in J 17 from 1880-1925. Those from 1926-1959 have been destroyed. From 1960 a representative selection has been kept. Depositions are arranged by date of filing and then alphabetically by name of plaintiff/cause title, with indexes in IND 1.
Petitions, used to initiate actions in some cases (usually applications under particular acts, such as the Companies Acts and Charitable Trusts Acts, or concerning the administration of estates) are in J 53. They are arranged by year and then alphabetically up to 1954, with indexes in IND 1. Those from 1955-1965 have been destroyed. From 1966, samples will be found on the J 83-J 84 case files.
8. Reports and certificates
Those made by the masters of the Supreme Court are in J 57. They include accounts, schedules of debts, arbitration awards, trust schemes, statements and special reports. They are arranged by date of filing, and the alphabetically by name of plaintiff/cause title, with indexes in IND 1. Miscellaneous records of masters, including some exhibits, mainly before 1900 are in J 23-J 47. Pedigrees from masters' papers, many filed in relation to wills and intestates, are in J 63, J 64, J 66, J 67 and J 68.
9. Registrars' court books and minute books
Notes taken during proceedings, sampled after 1927, are in J 56.
10. Further reading
J M Lely and W D Foulkes, The Judicature Acts 1873 and 1875 (H. Sweet, 1877)
I H Jacob, 'Later Legal Records and the Historian', Archives, Vol. VI No. 31 (1964)
CT and MJ Watts, 'In the High Court of Justice...' Genealogist Magazine, Vol. 20 pp 200-206 (1981)