How to look for records of... Civil court cases: King’s/Queen’s Bench 1702-1998

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • None

1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide if you are looking for records of a civil (non-criminal) court case heard in the King’s/Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court (also known as the Supreme Court of Judicature) or its predecessor, the Court of King’s Bench. The records cover 1702-1998.

Examples of the sorts of cases heard in this court, which became a branch of the Supreme Court of Judicature when the latter was created in 1875, include:

  • Breach of contract
  • Debt
  • Personal injury
  • Medical negligence
  • Libel
  • Slander
  • Wrongful arrest

The formal documents, such as plea rolls and rule books, are in Latin before 1733, except during the Commonwealth period from 1653 to 1660.

2. What was the Court of King’s Bench?

The King’s Bench was the highest court of common law, with jurisdiction over both civil and criminal cases. Civil cases were usually dealt with on the ‘Plea side’ of the court while criminal cases were dealt with on the ‘Crown side’. See our guide to criminal cases of King’s Bench 1675-1988 for more advice on records of criminal cases.

The court became one of the three divisions of the Supreme Court of Judicature, better known today as the High Court, when it was created in 1875.

3. How to search for and view records: an overview

The advice in this guide is split into two timelines. For records up to 1874/75 consult sections 4 to 7. For records from 1875 onwards consult sections 8 to 17.

If you don’t know the date or at least the year of a case, your research at The National Archives is unlikely to get very far. In some instances, therefore, it may make sense to start your research elsewhere. Equally, if you are looking for court transcripts or full judgments (in other words, more than just the outcome of a case; the full wording of the judgment summarising the case and the reasons for the judge’s decision) you will very rarely find them among the official court records held here.

3.1 Starting your research elsewhere

Newspapers, especially The Times, can often provide the date and the name of the parties and include reports on court hearings. Read our newspapers guide for advice on where to go to find old newspapers.

Unreported judgments (where there is no law report) are given for recent cases on subscription-based law websites and databases, many of which are described and linked to on the Inner Temple Library site (under ‘Research & Training’ and then ‘Research FAQs’). Again, these contain full judgments.

3.2 Starting your research at The National Archives

Our King’s Bench records, in the vast majority of cases, are not viewable online. To view them you will need to visit The National Archives at Kew or pay for copies to be sent to you. The exceptions are the contemporary indexes described in section 4.1 and the Daily Cause Lists described in section 12.2, both available online.

Though court transcripts and full judgments very rarely form part of the official court records, there are verbatim accounts of what was said in court for a number of King’s/Queen’s Bench cases among contemporary pamphlets in British Trials 1660-1900, available on microfiche at The National Archives in Kew.

For most cases you will need to use our online catalogue and consult printed indexes and other finding aids in our reading rooms to locate records. Civil cases in these indexes are distinguishable as those described as ‘party or parties’ versus ‘party or parties’, such as Smith v Jones. As well as the names of the parties, you will usually need to know at least an approximate date of a case to have a chance of finding any records – unless you are prepared to leaf through dozens, perhaps hundreds of documents and rely on large slices of luck. Some of the resources described in 3.1 may help you to establish dates.

For some civil ‘party v party’ cases, where a case has been referred or appealed from a lower civil court, such as a county court, you will need to search among the King’s Bench Crown Side records.

4. Searching for Plea (Judgment) Rolls, 1702-1875

These records set out the nature of the action and give the final judgment order. For civil cases between the years 1702 and 1875 they are the records most likely to reveal details of what a case was about. Be aware though, that from about 1760, regular filing of the rotuli (strips of parchment that make up the rolls) in court for each case by attorneys, declined.

Search for Plea Rolls in KB 122. There are several types of indexes that will help you to locate records in KB 122. Which ones you use will depend on the time period, as follows:

4.1 Searching for records up to 1839

Follow these steps:

The document description in our catalogue for each KB 122 piece provides a Docket Book reference (an IND 1 reference). It is the Docket Books that serve as the index to Plea (Judgment Rolls) up to 1839.

  • Step 2: Click on the IND 1 link within the online document description to order the corresponding docket book (you will need to visit our building in Kew to see it)

The Docket Books are arranged by the initial letter of the name of the defendant (for example, under Jones for the case of Smith v Jones).

  • Step 3: Find the case in question by searching for the name of the defendant – when you have located the entry, note the internal rotulet (strip of parchment) number. They are available online, free of charge, for the years 1702 to 1800 on the Anglo-American Legal Tradition
  • Step 4: Return to your search results for KB 122 in our online catalogue to order the rolls for the term in question. There are sometimes several Plea (Judgment) Rolls per term for each year, but our catalogue does not specify which of the rolls covers which range of rotulet numbers so you will need to order all the KB 122 documents for any given term.

KB 122 records are stored offsite and take three working days to produce.

4.2 Searching for records from 1839 to 1852

To search the rolls from Trinity term 1839 to 1852 use the Entry Books of Judgments in series KB 168. They are arranged chronologically by dates of payment of the fees of the various legal processes.

They give the date, county, names of plaintiff, defendant and attorneys, nature of entry, fee paid and the sum in dispute with damages in cases of debt and costs.

Use the indexes within KB 168 to locate a record by the name of the defendant, as follows:

  • Step 1: Search with the word ‘index’ and the year in KB 168 – this will provide the document reference
  • Step 2: Consult the index
  • Step 3: Find the name of the defendant – this will provide you with an accompanying page number for the Entry Book itself
  • Step 4: Search with the year only in KB 168 – this will provide the document reference for that year’s Entry Book which you can then consult.

4.3 Searching for records from 1853 to 1862

Though for this period there are no indexes, you can use the Entry Books of Judgments in KB 168 (see 4.2, above) to find the legal term and year for a case.

You can then search by year in KB 122 to find a Docket Book reference covering that year, arranged by legal term. There are two volumes per year in the docket books, also arranged by legal term. This will provide a full reference, such as IND 1/6142.

4.4 Searching for records from 1863 to 1875

Also for the years 1863 to 1875 see index IND 1/6650.

4.5 Searching for Rule Books, 1603-1877

Search for Rule Books in KB 125.

The entries in the Rule Books are in chronological order under the days on which the orders were made. You can locate an entry by the name of the plaintiff, though only between Michaelmas term 1792 to Hilary term 1802 (outside of 1792-1802 you can only search by year/term), as follows:

5. Searching for Affidavits, 1734-1874

Affidavits (voluntary statements under oath) begin in 1734 (earlier Plea Side affidavits have not survived). Only a small sample has been preserved, consisting of those that were considered of interest and others relating to questions of property title called ‘actions of ejectment’.

They are in series KB 101.

Search our online catalogue for all surviving affidavits up to 1848 (none survive between 1848 and 1872) in KB 101 with the surnames of the parties and corresponding year. However, from 1873 to 1874 just the year is given in the catalogue and therefore must be browsed by date. The cases of ejectment can be identified in the catalogue by the fictitious name of the first named plaintiff and the abbreviation ‘dem’ standing for ‘at the demise of ’ (at the transfer of).

6. Searching for Depositions, 1792-1875

Depositions are sworn statements of persons under examination by the court but chosen by the parties in the case. The only surviving depositions prior to 1800 are in the case Taylor v East India Company. There is little material before the 1850s.

Depositions are in series KB 144.

Other than the Taylor case, above, it is not possible to search for depositions by the name of defendant or plaintiff. Instead, you will need to browse KB 144 by date.

Many of these depositions were taken abroad, most of them concerning shipping matters. There are a few supporting documents attached such as newspapers.

See section 10 for details of further depositions for the years 1871 to 1880 (in J 16).

7. Other records up to 1874

8. Pleadings 1875-1998

The main source of records for cases from 1875 to 1998 are the pleadings, which include the statement of claim, defence and judgment order.

8.1 November 1875 to March 1880

Records for these years are in J 55 along with pleadings for cases in the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of Exchequer. These pleadings can be searched by the names of the parties in our online catalogue.

8.2 April 1880 to 1942

For these years pleadings are in J 54 (along with the pleadings for many Chancery Division cases). They are arranged monthly, in quarterly divisions of the year, under the initial letter of the name of the plaintiff (they appear in our catalogue as alphabetical ranges – for example, J 54/642 covers cases for April to June 1890 for plaintiffs whose names begin with the letters P to R). They are then arranged by date of filing which is usually within a few days after final judgment.

Search J 54 by year, then browse your search results (sort them by ‘Reference’) for the right alphabetical sequence.

The pleadings for the King’s Bench Division case concerning the Titanic have been digitised.

8.3 1902 to 1998

There are further pleadings, motions for judgment and orders in KB 16 for the years 1902 to 1984. These include special cases (opinions of the court on point of law) which have internal indexes up to the year 1966 and separate indexes from 1977. There particularly contain arbitration and town and country planning cases.

There are small samples of pleadings for 1979 to 1998 under references J 54/2461-2495 catalogued under the year and initial letter of the plaintiff.

9. Depositions, 1871-1991

Depositions are statements made on oath.

Only selected samples of depositions for King’s Bench Division cases were selected for preservation at The National Archives. Most of them are held along with samples of Chancery Division cases in series J 17. They cover the years 1880 to 1925 and 1960 to 1991 (nothing survives for 1926-1959).

9.1 1871 to 1880

Depositions for these years are in J 16. Most of them are from 1875.

Search J 16 by the year of a case to locate document references.

9.2 1880 to 1925

Search J 17 by year for depositions between 1880 and 1925. Document references for these years are also arranged by range of initial letters of the name of the plaintiff.

9.3 1960 to 1991

Search J 17 by names of either party to locate depositions from 1960 to 1991.

10. Affidavits, 1881-1895

Affidavits are sworn written statements.

The only surviving affidavits for the King’s Bench Division are for 1881 to 1895. The remainder were destroyed.

These records are held in series J 4, along with Chancery Division affidavits. They are held off site so you will need to provide three days notice before you can see them at our building in Kew.

Follow these steps to locate a record:

  • Search J 4 using the initial letter of the plaintiff (for example, for Green v White search with G) and the year the case took place.

Your search results will consist of a number of document descriptions for affidavits from that year (for example, for G in 1890 there are eleven references: J 4/3868 to 3878). Each description contains a number range and an index reference.

  • Note the index reference which appears within the document descriptions – this will be an IND 1 reference.

In our example, the index reference for J 4/3868 to 3878 is IND 1/14794.

  • Consult the IND 1 index at the National Archives in Kew

A search for Green v White in IND 1/14794 tells us that the affidavit number is 1.

  • Returning to your original J 4 search results in the online catalogue, find the document description with the number range which includes your affidavit number.

For affidavit number 1, the reference in J 4/3868 (covering 1 to 250).

  • You can now consult the affidavits (following the three-working-days notice period).

11. Reports and Certificates from 1875

Officials working for the judge, known as masters, produced reports and certificates on some King’s Bench cases. These are found in series J 57. Most of the records in this series are for Chancery Division cases.

Follow these steps to locate a record:

  • Search J 57 using the initial letter of the plaintiff (for example, for Green v White search with G) and the year the case took place.

Your search results will consist of a number of document descriptions for reports and certificates from that year Each description contains an index reference.

  • Note the index reference which appears within the document descriptions – this will be an IND 1 reference.
  • Consult the IND 1 index at the National Archives in Kew – it should provide the appropriate month.
  • Returning to your original J 57 search results in the online catalogue, you should now be able to determine the appropriate J 57 reference.
  • You can now consult the documents (following the three-working-days notice period).

12. Cause Books, 1875-1989, and Daily Cause Lists, 1884-2008

12.1 Cause Books, 1875-1989

Cause Books provide one line of detail for each case, consisting of the following:

  • Names of the parties
  • Names of the solicitors
  • Type of court case
  • Outcome of the case (from 1909 onwards)

Cause Books, commonly called Green Books, are held in series J 87. There are usually several Green Books for each year, each one covering a specific range of dates

There are indexes to the J 87 records, one for each year, arranged by the first letter of the plaintiffs’ names. The indexes are held in series J 88 and cover 1935 to 1989.

Search J 88 by year or year range.

There are also similar Cause Books in series J 168 for 1879 to 1937. They are held off site before you can see them at our building in Kew.

Search J 168 by year or year range. From 1880 they are arranged in cause number order for each case but there is no way to find the number unless you have personal copies of court documents.

12.2 Daily Cause Lists, 1884-2008

The Daily Cause Lists list the cases to be heard. They provide proof of the existence of a legal case and identify the relevant court. Sometimes the lists are annotated to show whether a case was part heard or finished, the time taken on a hearing and very occasionally the outcome.

They are in series J 97 for 1884 to 2008 and are reproduced in the Times Digital Archive (£) up to 1 May 1940. You can view the Times Digital Archive free of charge at The National Archives in Kew.

13. Revenue cases from 1875

There are revenue cases heard at the King’s Bench Division, King’s Remembrancer.  Equity proceedings in the Court of Exchequer refers to earlier revenue cases heard in the Court of Exchequer.

E 186, for the years 1911 to 1919, are petitions for appeals and associated records under the terms of the Finance Act 1909-10. See Valuation Office survey: land value and ownership 1910-1915.

E 188, for the years up to 1917, contain miscellaneous petitions and related records relating mainly to appeals against Inland Revenue assessments for estate or succession duty. See Death Duties 1796-1903.

E 187 for the years 1911 to 1915 are petitions and orders relating to petitions concerning the assessment of annual licence values of licensed premises made by publicans and others.

E 205  for the years 1905 to 1931 are petitions and associated records for compensation for non-renewal of liquor licences.

14. Official Referee cases from 1875

Some cases heard at the King’s Bench Division are referred to Official Referees (specialist judges). Most of these cases are commercial disputes and are referred on questions of a technical or a particularly detailed nature.

We hold the following records relating to these referred cases:

  • Judges notebooks, 1944-1994. Search J 114 by surname of judge and by year.
  • Case files, 1962-1992. Search J 115 by names of parties and date.
  • Minute books, 1959-1996. Search J 116 by year. The documents have their own indexes.

15. Other records from 1875

15.1 Bills of costs

J 131 are both King’s Bench and Chancery Division Bills of Costs dealt with by the taxing masters for the years 1913 to 1994. These records are arranged by the name of the taxing master.

15.2 Court Funds

J 342 are accounts for the years 1931 to 1968 which include indexes 1883-1975 arranged by name of suitors. These records relate to funds transferred to, paid in or deposited in court.  See Funds in court.

15.3 Writs

Writs commence a case or court process. They survive for the years 1880, 1890, 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 under references J 89/25/1-465 with indexes for 1880 to 1910 in J 89/25/466-468. They include the particulars of claim.

15.4 Orders and judgements made by judges

There are additional judgment orders for the years 1875 (November to December), 1880, 1890, 1900, 1910 and 1920 under references J 89/13/1-13/235.

15.5 Orders of Course

Orders of Course give details of arbitration agreements. They survive for 1879 and December 1889 to July 1891 under references J 89/17/1-2.

16. Cases heard at District Registries from 1875

King’s/Queen’s Bench cases are held at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. However, since 1876 cases have also been held at courts called District Registries, based in cities and large towns in England and Wales. A high proportion of cases are initiated at District Registries. For example 40 per cent of cases were in the year 1910.

Records of district registries, especially minute books, are among the assize court records. See Civil court cases: assize courts for more details.

A small number of records of district registry cases are selected for permanent preservation by the Ministry of Justice and transferred to local authority county and city archives.

17. Records of cases from the last couple of decades

For records of cases from the last couple of decades up to the present, you should contact the Ministry of Justice.

Queen’s Bench Division files are retained for seven years at the court, after which most are destroyed (there may be a delay in this process) with only a small sample being selected, retained and stored by the Ministry of Justice before their eventual transfer to The National Archives.    

If you are an academic researcher and you require access to court and tribunal records still held at by the Ministry of Justice then you can apply for permission to access records through HM Courts and Tribunal Service.

18. Further reading

John Hamilton Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History (Oxford Press 2007)

William Tidd, The practice of the Courts of King’s Bench and Common Pleas in personal pleas and ejectment ……. 2 vols (London, 1790-1828)

Archbold’s Practice of the Court of the Queen’s Bench…….2 vols (London, 1819-1885) (for the 20th century consult the various editions of the Annual Practice and Supreme Court Practice)