Legal records

Court records held in the National Archives

Why does the National Archives hold court records?

Court records are defined as departmental records under the terms of the National Archives Act, 1986 and are, therefore, subject to the same legislative protection and permanent preservation as other records of state.

The National Archives Act, 1986 was the first legislative protection given to Irish public records since independence. This Act applies to all government departments, 61 scheduled bodies and all courts. As well as ensuring the permanent preservation of records, the Act enshrines the principle of access to government and court records to members of the public after a closure period of 30 years.

Does the National Archives hold court records less than 30 years old?

Yes. The National Archives holds testamentary records from the Probate Office up to 1991. The Public Records Office (Ireland) Act, 1867 established the Public Record Office of Ireland as the official place of deposit for the records of the higher courts once they were 20 years old. This practice continued until recently with many court offices, particularly the Probate Offices, transferring their records to the National Archives once they are 20 years old. Due to the lack of availability of storage space in recent years, this practice has ceased and courts now transfer records when they are 30 years old.

What was destroyed in the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1922?

The Public Records Office of Ireland was situated in the Four Courts. This building was occupied during the Civil War in 1922 and the records repository destroyed in the battle to retake the Courts. A large proportion of the records held by the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1922 were court related. Most of the archives charting the legal history of Ireland up to the early 1900’s, including medieval rolls and court registers and files at all levels up to the mid to late-19th century were destroyed.

A summary of the main surviving pre-1922 courts and testamentary material is:

  • Chancery: 56th Deputy Keeper’s Report, p203: roll of Justiciary Pleadings, 6 & 7 EII, and statue roll, 28 H VIII. Also, a considerable collection of Chancery Bills, largely dating from 1550 to 1630.
  • Exchequer: 56th Deputy Keeper’s Report, p301: Memoranda Rolls, 3EII and 13 & 14 EII and a few inquisitions, t. Henry VIII.
  • Common Pleas: Deputy Keeper’s Report, 57, p421, nothing earlier than the late 18th

Information concerning specific surviving items can be found in the finding aids to the various courts, which are available in the reading room.

There are several collections of copies and summaries of destroyed records, as well as indexes and registers. The most extensive of these are:

  • Catalogues of private accessions, including the ‘C’, ‘CO’, ‘M’, ‘999’ and ‘1000+’ series, and the testamentary card index in the Reading Room. The Business Records Survey, arranged by county, also contains some useful private sources. These collections are not currently searchable in the online catalogue and must be searched in person in the reading room.
  • Record Commission, 1810–1830. Transcripts and calendars of ancient records, temp. Hen. III onwards, especially from Patent Rolls, Plea Rolls, Memoranda Rolls and Inquisitions comprising 204 volumes and some unbound papers. A finding aid is available in the reading room. Summary list is available in the 55th Deputy Keeper’s Report, pp111–116.
  • Lodge manuscripts, including transcripts and summaries, mainly from patent rolls, H II–Geo. II, listed in the Deputy Keeper’s Report 55, pp116–122.
  • Ferguson collection of extracts from Exchequer records, mainly from Memoranda Rolls, EI–Anne, listed in the 55th Deputy Keeper’s Report, pp122–123.
  • Manuscript Calendar of Justiciary Rolls, 1–11, made in Public Record Office.
  • Registers of Incumbered Estates Court, Landed Estates Court and Land Judges Conveyances, 1850–1881 and 1892–1901, and Proceedings 1849–1891.
  • Chancery Bill Books, 1633–1640 and 1660–1867 (names of parties and dates of proceedings only).
  • Registers of Fines, 1511–1835 and Recoveries, 1590–1834, and calendars of Disentailing Deeds Rolls, 1834–1866.
  • Calendar of Rolls of Converts, 1703–1838.
  • Indexes to Catholic Oath Rolls (‘Qualification Rolls’) giving lists of Catholics taking the oath of allegiance under the Acts 17/18 and 33 Geo. III, 1778–1796.
  • Courts Fees Commission, 1814–1931: Reports on Common Pleas, Equity Exchequer and Courts of Prerogative and Faculties.

A list of calendars, repertories, indexes and books of reference to destroyed records is to be found the 55th Deputy Keeper’s Report, pp124–132, and of duplicates and copies in the Public Record Office of Ireland (now the National Archives) and elsewhere at pp133–144.

What court records are held by the National Archives?

The majority of the court records held by the National Archives date from the foundation of the modern Irish state in 1922. These include records relating to all levels of court, including District Court, Circuit Court, High Court, Central Criminal Court, Court of Criminal Appeal and Supreme Court.

Some earlier court records, pre-dating the destruction in 1922, are held by the National Archives. These include registers of the Petty Sessions, Quarter Sessions, Assizes and High Courts. Many of these records survived because they had not been transferred to the Public Record Office of Ireland by the local court offices before 1922.

The National Archives also holds some copies and transcripts of destroyed records, including transcripts of medieval rolls made by the Record Commission and copies of legal and testamentary records obtained from various sources, most notably private collections donated by solicitors.

What details do I need to search court records?

Early court records are arranged by the level of the court, court sitting and date. Researchers looking for a particular case will need to know these details to make their search as efficient as possible. Newspaper archives are a useful source for information on early court records. District and Circuit Court records post-1983 are searchable in the online catalogue. They will have a three part National Archives reference code, which should be used to order the material.

How do I order court records?

The way in which court records are ordered by researchers varies depending on the level of Court and the records in question. Please see under the heading relating to each level of court for further information.