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Guide reference: Legal Records Information 35
Last updated: 20 January 2011

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 (e.g. 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


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