Guide to court records in Ireland pre-1922
Quarter Sessions, Petty Sessions and County Courts
These Courts were the precursors to our modern day District Court, and were in existence until 1924.
Resident Magistrates and Justices of the Peace were appointed to bind people over to the peace and hear minor civil and criminal matters. Criminal matters were also heard at Quarter Sessions, which were held four times a year, and outside of these sittings at Petty Sessions courts.
The records of the Petty Sessions Courts largely consist of Petty Sessions Order Books, which are court registers giving the names and places of residence of the party or parties to a case and, sometimes, the names of the witnesses together with statements of the nature of the case and of the verdict given. Petty Sessions records held by the National Archives largely date from 1851 to 1924. The collection of Order Books consists of over 11,000 volumes, but it does include some large gaps, most notably the registers of the Dublin Metropolitan Police Court.
The Petty Sessions records also include a separate series of Dog Licence Register books and some Registers of Criminal Proceedings. Dog Licence Registers are important as they record names and addresses of individuals. Petty Sessions records are useful to researchers interested in family, local and social history. Often individuals who do not appear in other official records, such as land valuation or testamentary records, will appear in Petty Sessions records for minor offences such as being drunk in a public place or not having a dog licence.
These records are only available on microfilm. The series reference codes are CS/PS/1 (Order Books), CS/PS/2 (Dog Licences) and CS/PS/3 (Miscellaneous series). They are searchable in the online catalogue or by using the finding aids in the Reading Room. The finding aid contains the microfilm reference code (MFGS/58 (Order books), MFGS/60 (Dog Licences) and MFGS/61 (Miscellaneous)), which is needed to request the relevant microfilm. They also contain details of the National Archives reference code, the District, Court location and the dates of the Order Book. It should be noted that court districts may cross county boundaries.
Records of the Quarter Sessions and County Courts can be found in the finding aids to the Offices of the Clerks of Crown and Peace.
Courts of Crown and Peace
The office of Clerk of the Crown and Peace originally comprised two distinct offices: the office of Clerk of the Crown and the office of Clerk of the Peace. The former office was granted by letters patent from the Crown and was held for the life of the officeholder, contingent on good behaviour, but could be revoked at the pleasure of the Crown. The grantee often held the office for a whole province and had the right of appointing deputies. Appointments to the latter office were originally by the Crown, but was appointed by the Custos Rotulorum of the relevant county.
The patent actually appointed the holder to the office of Clerk of the Crown, but also contained an express grant of the office of Clerk of the Peace to the holder. This latter office had evolved out of the commissions appointing Justices of the Peace (magistrates), which were first issued in England under the Act 18 Ed. III, stat. 2, c.2 ‘to hear and determine felonies and trespass done against the Peace’. Under the Act 37 Henry VIII c.1 (English), the power of appointing Clerks of the Peace became vested in the Custos Rotulorum for each county and city.
This contributed to documented complaints during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from certain Clerks of the Crown, who found that that several Custodes Rotulorum insisted on appointing their own Clerks of the Peace, rather than recognising the appointed Clerks of the Crown as Clerks of the Peace by virtue of their patent. The situation was resolved finally in 1877 by the passing of the Act 40 & 41 Vict., c. 56, whereby the offices of Clerk of the Crown and Clerk of the Peace were amalgamated on the death or retirement of either official and the new holder of the joint offices was a civil servant appointed by the Lord Lieutenant. The functions of the Clerk were in many respects similar to the modern County Registrar.
As Clerk of the Crown, the officeholder was the clerk of the court of assize, as well as secretary to the Grand Jury for criminal business. His role was varied involving criminal, civil and fiscal functions arising partly at Common Law and partly out of a series of legislative enactments. Criminal duties consisted of receiving and preserving all information, examinations and recognisances of the magistrates; drawing up bills of indictment in cases in which they were not prepared by the Crown Solicitor, or for private individuals; swearing the Grand Jury, and attending them with the indictments; attending the Crown Court, arraigning the prisoners, entering on record all pleas, orders and proceedings of the court in the Crown Book; swearing and examining witnesses on the trials; preparing and keeping all records of the Assizes; preparing all warrants necessary for the transmission of prisoners, the execution of offenders, etc. The Clerk of the Crown also received from coroners’ returns of all inquests, with the depositions, examinations and other documentation.
By the Act 36 Ed.III, c.12 it was enacted that, in their commissions, these magistrates should be authorised to hold sessions in four stated seasons of the year. This was the origin of the Quarter Sessions. The magistrates’ commissions gave them jurisdiction over all crimes affecting the public peace, excepting treasons. Under the Acts 1 & 2 Philip and Mary, c.13, and 10 Car I., c.18, the magistrates were required to forward cases of felony (except petty larcenies) to the Assizes, which were the precursor to the High Court on Circuit and sat twice a year. Cases of assault, riots, rescues or cattle or goods taken for distress, and trespass attended with violence, came within their jurisdiction. Besides the regular Quarter Sessions, Special Sessions have at various times been authorised to be held for the execution of some particular branch of magisterial duty, such as the registration of freeholders, presentment sessions etc. The Clerk of the Peace acted as clerk to the Justices of the Peace in the discharge of their duties.
Until the enactment of the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898, the Crown and Peace offices carried out many local administrative as well as legal duties. This is reflected in the records and specifically those of the Grand Jury. The Grand Jury was the most important local body in rural Ireland during the late 18th and early 19th centuries and it was empowered to raise money by means of county rates, also known as cess. Grand Jury Presentments are the chief records of the county administration prior to 1898. They contain information about work ordered to be done by the Grand Jury on roads, bridges and jails and about constabulary duties in the counties, as well as the names of those who received money for such work.
Other legal records of the court are:
- Appeal Books
- Convictions Crown Books Depositions
- Malicious Injury papers Patents
- Publican’s Licences
- Workmen’s Compensation Act Papers
- Writs of Certiorari Judicial Review
Administrative/local interest records include:
- District Drainage Schemes
- Fishery Papers
- Railway Plans and Maps
- Road widening schemes
- Township Improvement Act plans
- Tramways (Dublin) improvements
- Trees, affidavits and lists of
Under Orders in Council made in accordance with the terms of the Public Records (Ireland) Act of 1867, records of the Clerks of the Crown and Peace were transferred to the Public Record Office of Ireland after 20 years. When the County Registrars assumed the functions of the Clerks of the Crown and Peace in 1924 this system of transfer continued. The National Archives has accepted records less than 30 years old in the past to ensure their preservation, but due to current storage limitations, this practice has ceased.
The finding aids for surviving Crown and Peace records are held in three blue folders in the Reading Room. This material is not currently searchable in the online catalogue. These records are arranged by county. These lists were compiled from the original findings aids, which consisted of a volume for each county. The lists are arranged alphabetically by subject. To request these records, complete a docket order form and include the reference for the Crown and Peace (NAI, CS/CP/) followed by the county and the description of the item given in the finding aid, including the covering dates. 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.
Records for the six counties of Northern Ireland from approximately 1900 are held in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in Belfast.
High Court of Justice (pre-1924)
The High Court of Justice was established by the Supreme Court of Judicature (Ireland) Act, 1877. It brought together the courts of Chancery, Queen’s Bench, Common Pleas, Exchequer, Probate, Matrimonial Causes, Landed Estates and Admiralty. The remit of the High Court of Justice was very like that of our modern day High Court, including the functions of hearing appeals and dealing with points of law.
High Court files exist only from 1926. Prior to this the individual documents such as orders and judgements are bound separately. The finding aid for the High Court of Justice is contained in a blue folder in the Reading Room. There is an alphabetical subject index at the beginning of the finding aid. To request an item, complete an order docket and include the reference for the High Court (NAI, CS/HC/) followed by the description of the item given in the finding aid, including the covering dates.
This material is not currently searchable in the online catalogue. 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.
 In some cases, the office of Clerk of the Peace was granted separately by the Crown.
 The provisions of this act were not immediately extended to Ireland as there are several instances of grants of the office of Clerk of the Peace during the reign of Charles I.