How to look for records of... Chancery cases after 1875

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide to find records of the Chancery Division of the Supreme Court of Judicature. For recent cases (from the last 30 years or so) please contact the Ministry of Justice.

Established in 1875, the Supreme Court of Judicature brought together the existing central law courts, both common law and equity, into a new High Court of Justice with a separate Appeal Court. The names of some of the old courts – Chancery or Queen’s/King’s Bench – became divisions of the new court. The Supreme Court of Judicature should not be confused with the 2009-established Supreme Court, the highest court of appeal in the UK.

After 1945 little detailed information survives on most cases. Only a 2% random sample of all cases, along with particular cases considered to be of historical interest, are transferred to The National Archives.

2. What kinds of cases did the Chancery Division hear?

Chancery Division’s specific responsibilities included the administration of:

  • the estates of the deceased
  • partnerships
  • mortgages
  • other charges on land, trusts, real estate
  • the wardship of infants

Queen’s Bench Division also dealt with many civil cases. Some cases might be dealt with by either division as they all exercised concurrent jurisdiction.

  • contractual disputes
  • libel
  • debt
  • personal injury

Little detailed information survives on most cases after 1945. The 2% sample post 1945 are now in J 83 and J 84 which you can search by name in our catalogue. They consist of dossiers containing documents in the case.

Confidential papers are closed for various periods. Shorthand notes of trials are not kept.

3. How to search for and see records: the basics

These records are not available to view online and to see them you will need to visit The National Archives at Kew or order copies of records to be sent to you.

You can, however, search for document references online, using our catalogue. Once you have a document reference you can order copies or visit us to see the original record. For many cases you can search for a reference by the name of the plaintiff. Click on the record series references that appear throughout this guide and try a search by name of plaintiff.

The only way to locate document references for some records is to first consult paper indexes in IND 1, held in the reading rooms at Kew.

For some cases you may also find useful details in:

4. Starting a search: decrees and orders (1876-1955)

The best place to begin a search is with the Entry Books of Decrees and Orders in J 15, covering 1876–1955. Entry Books after 1956 have been destroyed.

To access these you need to use the Entry Book indexes which are available at The National Archives, Kew. You will need a readers’ card to view the indexes.

The indexes are arranged by name of plaintiff or title of cause.

Step 1 Once you find a relevant index entry, note down:

  • the year
  • the series (A or B)
  • the number of the order
  • whether it is written or printed

If the number is written across the two columns it refers to an ‘orders in course‘. Most of these have been destroyed. See J 89/18/1-43 for surviving orders of course.

Step 2 Search by year within J 15. Sort your results by reference.

Step 3 You need to use the information you noted from the index to work out which volume you need to order.

Until 1932, there are two main series of Entry Books for each year. 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.

Please note, in any given case there may be a series of entries, extending over a period of years.

The 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.

5. Pleadings

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 the outcome of cases
  • notices of change of solicitor

Pleadings in any particular case may be filed at different dates therefore you may need to search multiple dates.

Pleadings are in J 54 for 1876–1942. Search by year within J 54. Sort your results by reference. The records are arranged by the initial letter of the name of the plaintiff and by month, usually the month of the final judgment.

After 1942, only a 2% sample has been retained. You can search these by name within:

6. Affidavits (1876-1945)

These are sworn written statements submitted in evidence relating to serving of writs, production of documents and so on. Sometimes, however, they can be very informative.

Affidavits are in J 4 for 1876–1945. Those after 1945 have been destroyed.

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 or person/organisation ‘in the matter of’ (for example, matter of the estate of John Smith). There are indexes in IND 1 available at The National Archives, Kew.

As they are currently stored off site, you need to order three working days’ in advance.

7. Depositions

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 1880-1991. However 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 or person ‘in the matter of’ (for example matter of the estate of John Smith). Indexes are in IND 1, available at the National Archives, Kew. For J 17 use the IND 1/16748 to IND 1/16752 indexes.

8. Petitions

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 in the J 83-J 84 case files.

9. Reports and certificates (1875-1977)

Officials working for the judge, known as masters, also made reports.

You can find reports and certificates made by the masters of the Supreme Court in J 57. They include:

  • accounts
  • schedules of debts
  • arbitration awards
  • trust schemes
  • statements
  • special reports

Indexes are in IND 1. J 57 is arranged by date of filing, and then alphabetically by name of plaintiff or person/organisation ‘in the matter of’ (for example, matter of the estate of John Smith.)

Miscellaneous records of masters, including some exhibits, mainly before 1900 are in J23-J 47. Browse through these to find the master and date which best fits your research enquiry.

Pedigrees from masters’ papers, many filed in relation to wills and intestates, are in J 63-68. You can search by name of plaintiff or person/organisation ‘in the matter of’ (for example matter of the estate of John Smith).

10. Registrars’ court books and minute books

Notes taken during proceedings, sampled after 1927, are in J 56. Search these by registrar’s name.

You may find the registrar’s name on previous related case papers. Alternatively you may find it by searching for the case on the The Gazette.

11. Cause Books (1875-1940)

Civil cases coming before the High Court were entered into the cause book 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, for example 1900 L 59

The Cause Books of Chancery Division 1875–1880 are in C 32.

After 1880, the Cause Books have been destroyed. The exception is a ten 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.

Cause books record:

  • names of plaintiff and defendant and their solicitors
  • dates of appearances
  • sometimes the dates when pleadings were filed

They do not record final judgments.

Only a minority of actions started came to formal trial.

12. Further reading

Some of the publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives’ bookshop. Alternatively, search The National Archives’ library catalogue to see what is available to consult at Kew.

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 Number 31 (1964)

C T and M J Watts, ‘In the High Court of Justice…’ Genealogist Magazine, Vol 20 pp200-206 (1981)