How to look for records of... Courts of law records held in other archives
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1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide if you are researching courts of law records in England and Wales and are interested in collections which are held by archives other than 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. For research guides specifically on The National Archives court records please see our Criminals, courts and prisons research guidance category.
This research guide briefly describes:
- how to start searching for records
- the principal relevant repositories with significant collections relating to courts in England and Wales
- useful addresses, links and general works of reference
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.
2. How to search for court records
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.
Search Discovery (£), our catalogue, to find records from over 2,500 archives across the UK, as well as from The National Archives itself. Your search results will include details of which archives currently hold the records.
Click on the title of a result for the contact details of the archive which holds the record – you will need to contact this archive for further information about the collection or the record itself.
Where the keywords you searched for appear in the description of a record, the search results are displayed under the ‘Records’ tab.
Where the keywords you searched for appear in the name of the institution or person that originally created the record (often not the same as the institution or person that currently holds the record), the search results are displayed under the ‘Record creators’ tab. For further tips on searching, see our Discovery help pages.
For manorial courts only, search the Manorial Documents Register (MDR) using our catalogue. From your search results page, click on the record creators tab and refine by manor. 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.
3. Records recently collected by other archives
Many archives regularly take in new records to add to their collections – this process is known as accessioning. Every year, The National Archives collects information about new accessions from 250 archives across Britain and Ireland. This is known as the annual Accessions to Repositories’ survey. For court records from 1994 to the present consult our Accessions to Repositories pages.
4. Major collections
Besides The National Archives, which holds records of the central or ‘high’ courts of law, the following repositories and institutions hold major collections of court records:
4.1 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 Find an archive by county to find contact details for county record offices.
4.2 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:
- Lambeth Palace Library, covering the Canterbury diocese
- Borthwick Institute for Archives, covering the York diocese
You can also find diocesan records in local archives. Search Find an archive by town or region to find contact details for local archives.
4.3 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
4.4 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:
5. Other useful websites
Ancestry (£) – for online court records covering tax, wills, criminals and land.
Black Sheep Ancestor – use this website to search for criminals and convicts in historical court records.
Findmypast (£) – 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)
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