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Guide reference: Legal Records Information 18
Last updated: 19 September 2012

1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you find courts of law records in England and Wales.

The guide does not cover records of law courts in Scotland or Northern Ireland, whose legal systems are distinct from England and Wales and whose records are found in their respective national and local archives.

However, there is advice on finding records of military courts, whose jurisdiction covers the whole of the United Kingdom.

2. Essential information

There are countless records of courts of law in England and Wales, going back centuries. Where you look for a particular set of records depends upon the court in question.

Some records are at The National Archives and others are held in a variety of other archives.

3. Major collections

The following repositories and institutions hold major collections of court records:

3.1 The National Archives

The National Archives holds many records of the central or 'high' courts of law such as Chancery, King's Bench or the Supreme Court. It also holds records of the county assizes up to 1971.

You can find records of:

  • Central Criminal Court (CRIM)
  • Chancery (C)
  • Court of King's Bench (KB)
  • itinerant justices (JUST)
  • Court of Common Pleas (CP)
  • Supreme Court of Judicature (J)
  • assize courts for English and Welsh counties (ASSI)
  • palatinate courts (DURH, CHES and PL)
  • courts martial in military courts (WO)

Use the index of research guides to find a guide covering the type of court you are interested in.

3.2 County record offices

County record offices are the place to find records of:

  • petty sessions, which dealt with minor matters and were presided over by justices of the peace, now known as magistrates courts
  • quarter sessions, which met four times a year and dealt with all kinds of offences
  • county courts
  • some assize courts
  • coroners courts
  • papers of legal cases created and preserved by law firms and individuals

Search the ARCHON Directory by county to find contact details for county record offices.

3.3 Diocesan record offices

Diocesan record offices hold ecclesiastical court records. These usually relate to a particular church diocese and record judicial activities of church and Christian institutions. For example:

You can also find diocesan records in local archives. Search the ARCHON Directory by town or region to find contact details for local archives.

3.4 Parliamentary Archives

Consult the Parliamentary Archives for legal records including:

  • appeal cases
  • other judicial papers of the House of Lords
  • the papers of MPs and political figures

3.5 Inns of Court

The four Inns of Court in London, where barristers traditionally lodged, trained and practised, each have their own records dating back centuries. Though these are not court records, they may provide insights into workings of courts and the culture that surrounds them:

4. How to find court records in archives in England and Wales

Use the search tools on The National Archives' website to locate court records in archives throughout England and Wales.

4.1 National Register of Archives

Use the National Register of Archives (NRA) on The National Archives' website to search for records of courts, firms of solicitors, judges and lawyers. The NRA will tell you where the records are held.

Search by person, organisation, business, family or place from the NRA homepage, or use the business index advanced search and select "Business and professional services" from the sector options, and "legal services" from the subsector options.

It is not possible to use these indexes to search for single letters or papers relating to a certain criminal or legal theme, such as murder.

4.2 Access to Archives

Search Access to Archives (A2A) - a central database, maintained by The National Archives, allowing you to search across detailed catalogues from around 400 record repositories in England and Wales.

4.3 Recent accessions of records: 1994 to present

Each year The National Archives contacts approximately 250 of the principal record repositories in the British Isles to discover which major and unusual accessions have been received.

You can view these accessions through our Accessions to repositories indexes. You can search by year and topic. Select "legal history" to search for court records.

4.4 Medieval and early modern court papers

To find records of the central courts see 3.1 above.

For manorial courts only, search the Manorial Documents Register (MDR). Typical cases within the manorial courts system included land use issues and the settling of local disputes, records of which can also be found in county record offices.

The MDR is maintained within The National Archives as an index to the nature and location of surviving manorial records. These include court rolls and books with other papers relating to the administration of Courts Baron and Courts Leet during the medieval and early modern periods.

5. Other useful websites

Ancestry (£there will be a charge) - for online court records covering tax, wills, criminals and land. - digitised copies of quarter sessions, manorial and Court Leet records.

Black Sheep Ancestor - use this website to search for criminals and convicts in historical court records.

Findmypast (£there will be a charge) - for Irish petty sessions records.

Old Bailey - the proceedings of the Old Bailey, London's Central Criminal Court, 1674-1913.

6. Further reading

The following books are all available in The National Archives' reference library. You may also be able to find them in a local library. You can buy from a wide range of history titles in our bookshop.

Michelle Cale, Law and Society: an introduction to sources for criminal and legal history from 1800 (1996)

J Gibson (ed), Quarter Sessions Records for Family Historians: A Select List (Federation of Family History Societies, 3rd ed, 1992)

P D A Harvey, Manorial records (1999)

David T Hawkings, Criminal Ancestors: A Guide to Historical Criminal Records in England and Wales (2009)

Anne Tarver, Church court records: an introduction for family and local historians (1995)

Guide reference: Legal Records Information 18