How to look for records of... Criminal court cases: an overview

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This is a guide to searching for records of criminal court cases in England and Wales.

Over the centuries there have been many different types of criminal courts, some of which no longer exist and others that continue to this day. The courts have always been organised into a hierarchical structure. We have published guides for each of the different kinds of courts whose records we hold at The National Archives. This guide will help you to determine the court and therefore where to look for the records, whether at The National Archives itself or elsewhere.

Most of the court records we hold are not online and to see them you will need to consult them at our building in Kew or pay for copies to be made and sent to you.

How the records are arranged

Records are arranged by the court that created them, then by the type of record, such as indictments or depositions, and by date. For any case there may be a number of different types of records, each of which will usually have to be searched for separately. There are relatively few court transcripts (records of what was said in court) – they tend to exist more for cases that go to appeal.

How to search for records

In general, you cannot search for records of criminal court cases by the names of defendants or anyone else involved in the case, though there are some exceptions to this, notably with Crown court records held at The National Archives. Usually you will need to know when and where a trial took place to have any hope of finding records. To search for records, follow these steps:

Step 1: Establish which court heard the case and when.

Consult the following to try to establish these two key facts:

Step 2: Establish where the records for the court type are held

Once you know the court, use the following sections of this guide to locate advice on where to find records for that type of court. We have listed the different types of criminal courts by period, each with brief details of where to find the respective records. Click on the links to be directed elsewhere or to one of our guides.

Step 3: Consult the respective research guide

Use our guides for search advice on each of the courts whose records we hold. Searches at The National Archives usually begin in our online catalogue.  A successful catalogue search will unearth short descriptions of the court records and a document reference for each – you will need the document reference to see the record itself or to request copies. For more guidance on searching or browsing our catalogue, visit our Discovery help pages.

Criminal courts and their records since 1972

On 1 January 1972 the Crown Court system was born, replacing assize courts. This was part of a complete restructuring of the local courts structure which saw petty sessions and quarter sessions courts abolished too. The structure now looks like this, from bottom to top:

Magistrate courts are at the base of the pyramid. They deal with the majority of all criminal (and civil) cases, estimated at 95%. These are the less serious, or ‘summary’ offences, such as drunk and disorderly behaviour, criminal damage or common assault, some of which can carry a prison sentence, though rarely more than six months.

Magistrate court records are not held at The National Archives. Search for these records at:

  • the courts themselves (records are generally held by the courts for between three and six years after the case)
  • the Courts and Tribunal Service
  • county and city record offices (use our catalogue to search for records held by ‘other archives’, using ‘magistrates’ and either a city, town or borough as your keyword search terms)

Crown courts tend to be used for the more serious criminal trials. Crown court records are held in one of three places:

  • At the Crown court itself – the courts keep their own records for around three to six years.
  • The Courts and Tribunal Service – go to the Freedom of Information request section.
  • The National Archives – Crown court records should arrive in our repositories twenty to thirty years after the case was heard but this is only sometimes the case. Use our Crown courts guide for advice on all Crown court records other than those of the Old Bailey, the most famous Crown court, also known as the Central Criminal Court.

Supreme Court of Judicature: Queen’s Bench Division deals with appeal cases previously handled by a lower court. See our guide to King’s/Queen’s Bench Division for advice on records up to 1988. For records since 1988 contact Courts and Tribunal Service.

Court of Appeal records can be for civil or criminal cases. For guidance on records of criminal appeal cases see our guide to records of criminal court appeal cases.

Supreme Court of the United Kingdom was established in 2009 as the final court of appeal and the peak of the court pyramid. It replaced the House of Lords as the highest appeal court in the land. For records of either the Supreme Court or House of Lords cases, contact the Parliamentary Archives.

The Find Case Law service provides public access to recent judgments from the England and Wales High Court, the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court and tribunal decisions from the Upper Tribunals. The service will be expanded to include more courts and tribunals and a greater range of judgments will be added. For more information see the website.

Criminal courts and their records from 1876 to 1971

In 1875 the central courts in London were amalgamated into the Supreme Court of Judicature, consisting of a High Court and a Court of Appeal. The lower courts hierarchy, which had been in place since the medieval period continued up until 1971. From bottom to top, the court hierarchy was as follows:

Petty sessions were at the base of the pyramid, where minor offences were dealt with by mostly unpaid, non-professional judges known as Justices of the Peace (also known as magistrates). The records are held in local archives. Use our Find an archive tool to search for the location and contact details of local archive offices or search our catalogue using the phrase ‘petty sessions’ plus the name of a county, city or town, ensuring you select the ‘Other archives’ catalogue results filter.

Quarter sessions were held four times a year and were also presided over by Justices of the Peace. Quarter sessions records are also held in local archives. Use Find an archive to search for the location and contact details of local archive offices or search our catalogue using the phrase ‘quarter sessions’ plus the name of a county, city or town, ensuring you select the ‘Other archives’ catalogue results filter.

Assize courts were where the more serious criminal trials tended to be heard, taking place at least twice a year and presided over by professional judges. See our guide to the criminal assizes for advice on finding records, though there is a separate guide for records of the Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court).

Supreme Court of Judicature was established in 1875, bringing the central courts under the same banner but separated into divisions. The King’s Bench Division (or Queen’s Bench Division) replaced the Court of King’s Bench and became the highest court in England and Wales for criminal cases. See our guide to records of King’s/Queen’s Bench.

The Court of Appeal was also established in 1875. The criminal division of the Court of Appeal was established in 1966 (before then a criminal appeal had to be submitted to the Secretary of State for Home Affairs). Its records can be for civil or criminal cases. For guidance on the records of criminal appeal cases see our guide to records of criminal court appeal cases.

Criminal courts and their records from 1485 to 1875

From bottom to top, the court hierarchy was as follows (most of the records up until 1733 are in Latin):

Petty sessions where minor offences were dealt with by mostly unpaid, non-professional judges known as Justices of the Peace (also known as magistrates). See search advice in previous section.

Quarter sessions were held four times a year and were also presided over by Justices of the Peace. See search advice in previous section.

Assize courts where the more serious criminal trials tended to be heard, taking place at least twice a year and presided over by professional judges. See our guide to the criminal assizes for advice on finding records, though there is a separate guide for records of the Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court).

The central courts in London, which consisted of the Court of King’s Bench and the Court of Star Chamber (up until 1642), were at the peak of the pyramid. These courts handled cases referred up the chain from the lower courts.

Criminal courts and their records from 1194 to 1484

The origins of the modern English legal system were established when the Court of Common Pleas emerged in the late 12th century. It sat in Westminster Hall. During the late 12th and 13th centuries, small groups of judges were sent from the central courts at Westminster to the counties of England to preside over local courts known as eyres. We hold some of the records created by these courts – see our guide to General Eyres 1194-1348. Records will be in Latin.