Guide to court records in Ireland post-1922
Modern Court System
The Courts of Justice Act, 1924 established the modern court system of the District, Circuit, High and Supreme Courts.
The District Court replaced the Quarter, Petty Sessions and County Courts and is the lowest court in the court system. It is presided over by the President of the District Court and there are 54 District Court judges.
The District Court is organised on a regional basis. There are 23 District Court districts all over Ireland, including the Dublin Metropolitan District. Each district is in turn divided into District Court areas. It should be noted that District Court areas can cross county boundaries.
The District Court hears minor civil and criminal matters, such as preliminary hearings for serious cases, grants of extradition, fines, licensing matters and family law (maintenance) cases.
Family law cases held by the National Archives are closed to the public and can only be accessed with the written permission of the relevant District Court clerk.
The records of the District Court are mainly in volume format with an entry for each case or matter dealt with.
The main categories are:
- Justices Minute Book (formerly the Order Book and also known as the Minute Book).
- Civil Process Book Summary Judgment Book Enforcement Order Book Ejectment Order Book.
- Licences (issuing of intoxicating liquor, public dancing (clubs), auctioneer and lottery licences).
- Family law (maintenance, barring orders, affiliation orders and access).
The finding aids for the District Courts are held in blue folders in the Reading Room. These folders are arranged by county and within that by district. These records have a unique three-part National Archives reference code and this should be written on the docket order form to request the record. Almost all District Court records held by the National Archives are held on-site and can be ordered on the day a researcher visits.
There are 26 Circuit Court offices throughout Ireland, each headed by a county registrar. The Circuit Court has jurisdiction over more serious civil and criminal matters and acts as a court of appeal for the District Court. Types of cases also dealt with by the Circuit Courts are defamation and false imprisonment cases, minor land valuation matters, malicious/criminal injury, intoxicating liquor licences and family law.
Family law cases held by the National Archives are closed to the public and can only be accessed with the permission of the relevant County Registrar.
The main categories of records produced by the Circuit Court are:
- Cause Books (Registers of Civil Bill Cases)
- Civil Bill Files (Ordinary, Equity, Ejectment, Family Law, Testamentary)
- Criminal Files
- Execution Order Books
- District Court Appeals (Books and Files)
- Criminal/Malicious Injury Books
- Applications for Publican’s Licences (Files) new Intoxicating Liquor Licences
- Registers of Publican’s Licences (Books)
- High Court on Circuit Papers
- Ex-Parte Applications (Files)
- Workmen’s Compensation Act (Books and files)
Civil Bills are the most numerous type of record produced by the Circuit Court. From 1932 to 1982, these are accessed using the Civil Bill Cause Books. For the years before 1922, Civil Bill Books are consulted. From 1983, Court Offices are required to list all files individually before they are transferred to the National Archives. Each Circuit Court has responsibility to transfer its records and, therefore, the latest year transferred differs for each county, but the most recent year held is for Wexford 1986.
While the records kept by Circuit Court Offices are of their nature essentially the same countrywide, there is some variation in the filing systems used from county to county. Some County Registrars have separated their civil bills into categories (for example ordinary, ejectment, equity, testamentary and publicans’ licences) whilst others store them altogether. Equity Civil Bills largely relate to issues of inheritance and ownership/control of land and other property. The Civil Bill Files are listed in numerical order in Cause Books (which books are sometimes not indexed) and/or Civil Bill Books (which are indexed more often than Cause Books) by name of plaintiff (the person or organisation who brought the case). Each file is allocated a number within its year. A typical reference would read: NAI, CS/CC/KK/Civil Bill 146/1943, which relates to a civil bill from Kilkenny Circuit Court.
The most common records sought by researchers are Civil Bills (including Equity Civil Bills) and Publicans’ Licence Registers and Maps.
Files of the Circuit Criminal Court, for criminal cases heard in the Circuit Court (State Files), are accessed through the State Books (sometimes referred to as Criminal Books). The State files are listed in numerical order in the State Books by name of accused. Each file is allocated a number within its year. A typical reference would read: NAI, CS/CC/CK, Circuit Criminal Court, State file 56/1945, which relates to a criminal case file from the Cork Circuit Criminal Court.
The Director of Public Prosecutions can direct any trial due to be heard before the Circuit Court to be transferred to the Central Criminal Court. For further information, please see Central Criminal Court.
The legal provisions relating to the granting and renewing of licences for the sale of alcoholic beverages of various kinds sometimes makes it necessary for a licence applicant or his/her legal agents to search for information concerning a particular licence going back many years. Principally, because of the largescale destruction of early legal records in 1922, the researcher may not be able to find all the information sought, for example, the precise area covered by the original licence.
The greatest volume of information is found in a Publican’s Licence/Civil Bill ‘file’, which should include the original application for a licence or an extension/modification of an existing licence along with supporting documentation. This should include maps for all applications made after 1950, when these became compulsory under revised Circuit Court rules, and for some pre-1950 applications as well, and a Certificate, signed by the County Registrar, specifying the type and extent of the Licence granted by the Court. In the absence of such a file, the researcher may have to be content with such information as he/she can extract from the other categories of Publicans Licence material which is held by the National Archives, such as Licence Application forms and Registers of Licences. The Census returns of 1901 and 1911 can at times be useful in this connection as well.
In a number of Publican’s Licence searches, the researcher does not know the precise year in which the relevant licence was granted and/or the name of the then applicant. In such cases, it may well be necessary for the researcher to consult Registers of Publicans Licence Applications and/or any Indexes to establish such facts. It can also happen that an Order sought may be on a file opened in a year previous to that in which the Order was granted.
The finding aids for the Circuit Courts are in blue folders in the Reading Room with a folder for each county. For records from 1922 to 1982, the records are arranged alphabetically by subject. To request these records complete an order docket and include the reference for the Circuit Court (NAI, CS/CC/) followed by the county and the description of the item given in the finding aid, including the covering dates. From 1983, Circuit Court records are listed individually and these will be included in the relevant county folder.
Most circuit court records before the mid-1970’s are stored in off-site storage and will not be available until the following working day if requested in person, or three working days if requested by email. Further information is available in Ordering archives in advance.
Coroners are required by law on leaving office to deposit their papers with their local County Registrar. All sudden deaths must be reported to the coroner, and where the cause of death is unclear an inquest will be held. While not an official place of deposit for Coroner’s records, the National Archives has acquired Coroner’s records through Circuit Court transfers.
There appears never to have been any official instructions issued as to the format in which Coroners records were to be kept. While almost all Coroners kept their papers relating to individual Inquests, not all have retained papers in cases where reports on deaths have been made to a Coroner but no Inquest was required or deemed necessary. A minority of Coroners kept registers entering therein in chronological order notes concerning all sudden deaths reported and/or Inquests held. Reference numbers are written beside the name in such registers. This number is the coroner’s file reference number and should be used to order the file. For example, NAI, CS/Dublin City Coroner Inquest file 1548/80 refers to file 1548 from 1980. Coroners work independently of the courts and keep their own records, and therefore the quality and quantity of inquest files vary by county.
Entries showing holdings of Coroners records are included in the blue Circuit Court folders for the relevant county. The exception is Dublin City Coroner, which is listed separately. To request an inquest file complete an order docket and include the court reference code (NAI, CS/CC/) followed by the reference (if given), county, name and date of death or inquest, and location if given. The majority of these records are stored in off-site storage and will not be available until the following working day if requested in person, or three working days if requested by email. Further information is available in Ordering archives in advance.
The High Court replaced the High Court of Justice. It is presided over by the President of the High Court and has the power to determine, subject to appeal, all matters and questions, whether law or fact, civil and criminal. It has the power to determine the validity of any law having regard to the constitution and hears civil and family law appeals from the Circuit Court. Although the High Court normally sits in Dublin; it also sits in circuit throughout the country at various times during the year.
High Court files only exist from 1926, as prior to this date all document types were bound separately by type (i.e. all orders were bound together). The last transfer of files from the High Court is 1970.
The four best known series of the High Court are:
- Plenary Summons files
- Summary Summons files
- Special Summons files
- State Side files
Plenary and Summary Files normally relate to civil disputes between individuals or between an organisation (Company, Bank etc.) and one or several individuals. Plenary Summonses are issued where there are to be pleadings and a hearing on oral evidence. Summary Summonses issue where it is not envisaged that there will be pleadings but that the issue will be heard on affidavit with or without oral evidence.
State Side Files relate to matters where the High Court exercised its supervisory jurisdiction and/or superior powers over the lower Courts, for example Orders of Habeus Corpus Certiorari, Mandamus and Prohibition, Attachment for Contempt and Bail applications of persons in custody. Substantial changes to procedures in these areas were made in the 1986 revision of the Rules of the Superior Courts, including the deletion of the term “State Side”.
Procedure by Special Summons was introduced in 1962. It is used in specified circumstances such as in certain areas of (a) the administration of deceased persons estates; (b) property dealings; (c) trusts; (d) minors.
There are also other categories of High Court records such as Appeals from the Circuit Court, Motions and Summonses, Matrimonial & Revenue cases and Orders without supporting files.
Family/matrimonial law cases heard in the High Court and held by the National Archives are closed to the public and can only be accessed with the permission of the Registrar in the Central Office of the High Court.
Plenary and Summary Summons files are arranged by year and within numerical sequence. Plenary files have a P suffix and Summary files either an S suffix or the number/year only, the S being implied. Individual files can be accessed through the Cause Books for the relevant years or through the indexes to the Cause Books. In general, it should be possible to obtain the reference of a particular file from the index without having to consult the Cause Book. The General Indexes to Orders and Judgments also provide file numbers.
The Probate Office is an office of the High Court charged with the administration of testamentary records. Wills are documents people use to control the administration and distribution of their property after their death. Prior to 1857, testamentary jurisdiction lay with the Church of Ireland, which was then the established church. With the passing of the Probate Act of 1857 the power to issue grants was taken from the Church of Ireland Prerogative Court and Consistorial (Diocesan) Courts and given to the Principal Registry in Dublin and 11 District Registries in Armagh, Ballina, Belfast, Cavan, Cork, Kilkenny, Limerick, Londonderry, Mullingar, Tuam and Waterford. Since 1967, there have been 14 district registries in Castlebar, Cavan, Clonmel, Cork, Dundalk, Galway, Kilkenny, Lifford, Limerick, Mullingar, Sligo, Tralee, Waterford and Wexford.
Calendars of Wills and Administrations (Intestate), where no will had been made but an Administrator of the deceased’s assets was appointed at the said Registries, were published annually by the Principal Registry from 1858 to 1982. These are available in our Reading Room and on our website. Each Calendar contains details of all grants issued for the country for each year and entries arranged alphabetically by deceased name. In addition to the deceased’s name, an entry will also include the deceased’s address, the date of death, the names of the Executors, or Administrators, the date the grant was issued and the value of the deceased’s “effects”. Further information is provided in the pre-1951 Calendars.
Transcripts of wills proved and administrations granted were made in the District Registries and the original wills and administrations were forwarded to the Principal Registry in Dublin, and when they were 20 years old they were sent to the Public Record Office. Unfortunately, this meant that in 1922 almost all original wills and administrations of the Principal Registry up to 1904 and the District Registries up to 1900 were destroyed.
Some copies of wills do survive in Principal Registry Will Books for 1874, 1878, 1891 and 1896 and Principal Registry Grant Books survive for 1878, 1883, 1891 and 1893.
Copies of most of the wills proved at District Registries between 1858 and 1900 may be found in the District Registry Will Books. Will Books for Ballina, Cavan, Cork, Kilkenny, Limerick, Mullingar, Tuam and Waterford are available on microfilm.
Testamentary records, including wills, issued prior to 1975 are stored in off-site storage and will not be available until the following working day if requested in person, or three working days if requested by email. Further information is available in Ordering archives in advance. The latest year for which testamentary records is held is 1991. For anything more recent, queries should be directed to the Probate Office.
For further information see Guide to wills and testamentary records.
High Court on Circuit
Files of the High Court on Circuit are kept by the County Registrar of the county in which the hearing takes place and searches for such files should be made in the Cause books referred to in the Circuit Court section above, kept by relevant County Registrar.
To request a file, complete a docket order form and include the court reference code (NAI, CS/HC/) followed by the file reference found in the Cause Books. Records pre-dating the mid-1970s are stored in off-site storage and will not be available until the following working day if requested in person, or three working days if requested by email. Further information is available in Ordering archives in advance.
Central Criminal Court
The High Court hearing criminal matters is known as the Central Criminal Court. In criminal matters, the High Court judge sits with a jury of twelve. A person refused bail in the District Court can apply to the High Court for bail, or if granted bail they can apply to vary the conditions of the bail. The Central Criminal Court also hears cases relating to treason, offences relating to the obstruction of government or the president, murder, attempted murder or conspiracy to murder, rape, sexual assault, piracy and offences under the Genocide Act 1973.
The National Archives holds records for the Central Criminal Court up to 1968. There are cause books, known as Trial Record Books and files. The finding aid is in a blue folder in the Reading Room and is arranged alphabetically by county. Files are listed by the county which the matter originated in. To request an item, complete an order docket and include the court reference code (NAI, CS/CCC/) followed by the details given in the finding aid, including the covering dates. This material is stored in off-site storage and will not be available until the following working day if requested in person, or three working days if requested by email. Further information is available in Ordering archives in advance.
Court of Criminal Appeal
The office of the Court of Criminal Appeal deals with appeals from persons convicted of a crime by the Central Criminal Court, the Circuit (Criminal) Court or the Special Criminal Court where that person obtains a certificate from the trial judge that the case is suitable for appeal or, such a certificate is refused provided the Court of Criminal Appeal itself grants such leave to appeal. The court of criminal appeal also hears applications from the Director of Public Prosecutions to review sentences they deem unduly lenient and acts an appeal court for Court Martials.
The main records of the court of criminal appeal are:
- Appeal Books, 1924–1974
These are the Cause Books listing cases in chronological order. The case numbers and the names of the Appellants have been transcribed from these volumes and the transcription is in a blue folder in the Reading Room.
- Order Books, 1924–1972
These books contain copies of the orders made by the court. There are approximately 20 orders per book and there is an alphabetical index at the back of each volume.
- Files, 1924–1972 and a separate collection of Orders arranged in chronological order dating from the 1920’s to the 1970’s
There is a file for every case dealt with by the court. The contents of the files include correspondence, particulars of trial, notices of appeal, transcripts, case notes and schedules of documents.
The finding aid to the Court of Criminal Appeal files is in a blue folder in the Reading Room. This lists chronologically all case files by the appellants name from 1924 to 1972. To request a file, complete an order docket and include the file reference, name and date. The records of the Court of Criminal Appeal are stored in off-site storage and will not be available until the following working day if requested in person, or three working days if requested by email. Further information is available in Ordering archives in advance.
Special Criminal Court
The records of the Special Courts which operated in the late 1930’s and the 1940’s and of the Special Criminal Court which was established in 1972 are closed.
The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal in the State and consists of the Chief Justice and seven ordinary judges. The Supreme Court has the power to decide whether a Bill which has been passed by the Seanad or Dáil, and has been presented to the President of Ireland for signature, is repugnant to the Constitution. The Supreme Court also decides civil and criminal matters, with the Court of Criminal Appeal dealing with criminal matters.
The main records of the Supreme Court are in volume format and are comprised of:
- Books of Appeal, 1922–1970, except 1955–1959
- Notices of Appeal, 1921–1927
- Judgments/Orders, 1922–1958
- Judges declarations on taking office, 1924–1927
The finding aid for the Supreme Court is a volume held in the Reading Room. There is an alphabetical index by subject at the front of the volume. To request an item, complete an order docket and include the court reference code (NAI, CS/SC/) followed by the document description, including covering dates. Records of the Supreme Court are held in off-site storage and will not be available until the following working day if requested in person, or three working days if requested by email. Further information is available in Ordering archives in advance.