How to look for records of... Civil court cases: Chancery Division since 1875
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
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 into a new High Court of Justice with a separate Appeal Court. The High Court had two divisions – Chancery Division and Queen’s Bench Division. This guide is about civil proceedings in the Chancery Division.
For criminal cases in the High Court consult our guide to Court of King’s/Queen’s Bench (Crown Side).
The Supreme Court of Judicature should not be confused with the 2009-established Supreme Court, the highest court of appeal in the UK.
2. What kinds of cases did the Chancery Division hear?
Chancery Division’s specific responsibilities included the administration of:
- the estates of the deceased
- business partnerships
- 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, for example:
- contractual disputes
- personal injury
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.
Confidential papers are closed for various periods.
Notes of trials and transcriptions of proceedings are not usually kept.
3. How to search for and see records
The sections below describe the types of records you can find and how to search for them. The different sorts of records in a case are kept separately, according to the type of record. Finding one record in a case does not provide a key to finding all related records, each type of record has to be searched for separately.
Some records are accessed by using separate indexes in series IND 1. Most of these indexes are themselves original records but can be ordered in advance of visiting the archives. Others are kept in the map room. More specific information can be found in the sections below and in section 13, Indexes and how to find them.
The 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.
For some cases you may also find useful details in:
- the London Gazette (available via The Gazette website)
- newspapers such as The Times (£)
- Law reports (£)
4. Action papers (1873-1990)
Action papers are dossiers containing chancery master’s notes, reports and correspondence relating to a case, they may also contain confidential papers. You can search for them by name in our catalogue.
5. Decrees and orders (1876-1955)
Decrees and orders are the orders and judgments given by a judge during a case. The entry books record these.
Entry Books of Decrees and Orders are in series 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 in the Map and Large Document reading room at The National Archives, Kew.
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 ‘order of 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.
6. Pleadings (1876-1990)
Pleadings are formal written statements made by the parties in a case. They set out the claims of the plaintiff and the defence of the defendant. They were meant to be confined to material facts in the case and do not include evidence. If a case was settled before reaching trial, the pleadings will not have been kept.
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.
Indexes to these records for 1876-1879 in IND 1 are available in the Map and Large Document reading room.
After 1942, only a 2% sample has been retained. You can search these by name among action papers in:
7. 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).
8. Depositions (1876-1991)
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. The indexes are undated and need to be ordered as original records, they can be ordered in advance of your visit (see section 13), catalogue references are IND 1/16748 to IND 1/16752 .
9. Petitions (1876-1954)
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.
Those from 1955–1965 have been destroyed. From 1966, samples will be in the J 83-J 84 case files.
10. 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:
- schedules of debts
- arbitration awards
- trust schemes
- special reports
Indexes are in IND 1, catalogue entries in J 57 give the reference for the relevant index 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’.
11. Registrars’ court books and minute books (1876-1982)
Notes taken during proceedings are in J 56. Search these by registrar’s name. Only a 2% sample has been kept after 1927.
You may find the registrar’s name on previous related case papers. Alternatively you may find it by searching for the case in the The Gazette.
12. 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.
13. Indexes and how to find them
Indexes to Decrees and orders in J 15 and to Pleadings in J 54 between 1876 and 1879 are on open access in the Map and Large Document reading room at our site in Kew.
- J 15 indexes are in date order and give folio numbers for entries in the relevant decree and order books.
- J 54 indexes are in year order and by initial letter of the plaintiff’s name. They give a cause number and initial for the relevant box of pleadings.
Other indexes in IND 1 have to be ordered as original documents.
- J 17, Depositions: There are five indexes, references IND 1/16748-16752, the indexes are not dated so you need to order all five.
- J 53, Petitions: There are five indexes, references IND 1/15048-15051 and IND 1/15282, they are not dated, so order all five.
- J 4 Affidavits: To find references and order indexes you will need to do an advanced search of IND 1 in Discovery, using the type of document and series reference as keywords and restricting the date range. Sort your results into reference order. For example, this search is for indexes to affidavits in 1881.
For guidance on searching and browsing see our Discovery help pages.
14. 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 Number 31 (1964)
C T and M J Watts, ‘In the High Court of Justice…’ Genealogist Magazine, Vol 20 pp200-206 (1981)