Researching legal records
What topic are you trying to research?
Are you interested in finding out more about your family history, are you a student with a particular interest in legal or political history or are you a professional researcher looking for a specific legal case or testamentary record?
Why do you think a visit to the National Archives is necessary?
The National Archives hold records of the modern Irish state from its foundation to approximately 1986, including government departments, state agencies and the Courts.
Have you undertaken any background research?
Often researchers visit the National Archives without undertaking any secondary reading on their area of interest. We would strongly advise researchers to investigate previous sources and publications in order to establish what primary sources exist, whether they are located in the National Archives and if it is necessary for you to visit in person. Many secondary sources, including books, journals or websites, are available in local and university libraries.
Begin by collecting basic facts about the person or topic you are interested in. Undertake some background reading about the period in question to contextualise the archival sources.
If you are undertaking research relating to legal history or government policy, familiarise yourself with the administrative system of government and the courts system, including what level of court decided a particular case or issue.
Understand the changes in the administration of Ireland from the time of British rule to the foundation of the State. During the 1920’s, many government departments were established and the system of courts changed. These changes are reflected in the types of records created and, consequently, the types of archives now available to researchers.
What do I need to understand about using the National Archives before I visit?
You need to understand the type of records we hold and why. It is also important to have an idea of what it is you are hoping to find when you arrive. Archival research can be difficult and time consuming. The onus is on researchers to ensure they provide themselves with adequate and realistic timeframes in which to undertake their research.
How are legal archives arranged?
Archives are not arranged by subject like a library. The collections are arranged according to the government body, court or individual that created the records. Access to collections is through the use of finding aids or catalogues that provide details about a topic or unique reference code for records.
In order to facilitate access while ensuring the original order of records is preserved, archives are arranged using a reference code for the creating body, such as a court, and a code for the series of records and the number of the record within the series.
For more modern material, the three part reference code is available in the online catalogue, but for older accessions the hard copy paper finding aid must be consulted in the reading room. Collections are arranged by the archive creator, or the body who made the records. In the case of the Courts, this is level of court and the county.
For example, District Court records are arranged by county and then by subject, Circuit Court records are arranged by County and then by Subject, but higher courts are arranged by subject unless they sit on circuit, as is the case with the High Court. In these instances, the records are managed by the County Registrar and transferred to the National Archives through the Circuit Court. These records are arranged by County in which the sitting took place and then by subject.
How do you search for legal archives held in the National Archives?
The majority of court records created before 1983 are not searchable in the online catalogue. The exception to this is testamentary records. The calendar of wills for each year is searchable online.
For other court records, including District and Circuit Court records created prior to 1983, and all other higher courts and their predecessor bodies, the finding aids must be consulted in the reading room. These record series are not currently searchable in the online catalogue.
If you are unsure of where or when a legal case was held, please consult the archives of local and national newspapers, many of which are now available online. Microfilm copies are also available in the National Library of Ireland (www.nli.ie). These sources often contain information about court sittings and the details of cases held. This information is vital to locating any files or other documentation that may exist. Without basic information, such as the level of court and the date of the sitting, it is unlikely that any search in the court records will be successful as the majority are not arranged by the name of individuals but by the subject.
For further information, please see Court records held in the National Archives.
Is visiting an archive the same as visiting a library?
No. Libraries generally provide access to printed publications, which can often be replaced. The National Archives provides access to original records that were created in the course of the work of government, the courts and private institutions or people. These archives are unique documents and cannot be replaced and as such may also provide a legal function. Security and preservation of the archives is an integral part of providing access to the public due to the original nature of material. Access is only given to members of the public who hold a valid Reader’s ticket.
How do you access archives in the reading room?
Once the researcher identifies the correct reference code, this is filled out on a yellow order docket and given to the staff at the counter in the reading room who will then arrange for it to be retrieved from the stacks or storage areas.
The majority of legal records are held in off-site storage. This applies to all testamentary records created before 1975, all records of the Crown and Peace, High Court, Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeal and early Circuit Court records dating before the mid-1970’s. District Court material is held on-site.
For information about accessing material held off-site please see Ordering archives in advance.
Archives can be arranged as an individual item, a file or a box of material. The order in which the documents are produced is extremely important and researchers must never take it upon themselves to reorder items within a file or a box. The sequence in which the material is presented preserves the filing system implemented by the creating organisation. This filing system can often provide as much information about the archives as the actual documents themselves. Any attempt to rearrange the original order can result in the loss of potentially vital information and must never be attempted. If researchers are in any doubt, or find a file has been tampered with, please bring it to the attention of the Archivist on Duty in the reading room.
If you know the archives you wish to consult are housed in the National Archives there are a number of steps to take:
- Use the online catalogue or hard copy finding aids to locate a correct reference code. Reference codes in the online catalogue generally contain 3 parts, for example 2015/44/13 or TSCH/3/S1459.
- Discover whether the material is available in its original format or has been microfilmed or digitised. With the exception of some testamentary material and Petty Sessions order books, all court records are only available to researchers in the reading room.
- Become familiar with the administration of the courts and what functions each level of the courts service is responsible for. This will enable you to determine what court created the archives and where to begin you search. It will also help to determine the types of records available. For example, Circuit Court records contain coroners’ inquest files but District Court records consist of registers with no supporting files.
- Understand the history of the courts system in Ireland and the changes that have taken place over time, especially when looking for material before independence from Britain. The courts system underwent substantial changes in the mid-1920’s with the result that the types of records created and how they are accessed may have changed also.
- Ensure the records you are seeking are at least 30 years old. The National Archives Act, 1986 only applies to records over 30 years old. Although the Public Record Office traditionally accepted transfers of court records once they were 20 years old, this practice has ceased due to space restraints. Records less than 30 years old will not have been transferred to the National Archives. If the records you are seeking have not been transferred to the National Archives, it will be necessary to contact the creating body directly. The exception to this is testamentary records, which are held up to 1991 for probates issued in Dublin.
Ordering Copies of archives
Certified and plain copies of legal records can be ordered. A plain copy is for information only. A certified copy may be used in legal proceedings. A fee is charged for copying services. For further information on ordering plain and certified copies and a schedule of fees please see Obtain copies of archives.
Some useful advice
Once you have determined your area of interest, take some time to browse the website to look for information about the archives you wish to consult. The website contains many of the answers to frequently asked questions. If you do not find the information you are looking for please Contact Us.
In the case of early court records that were destroyed in the Public Record Office of Ireland during the Civil War in 1922, check surrogate copies including those obtained from private sources such as solicitors’ collections and business records or transcripts created before the records were lost. For further information please see Testamentary records held in the National Archives.
It is important for researchers to keep track of any archives consulted. Please ensure you make detailed notes of reference codes or descriptions in the case of older records and where information was sourced in order to retrace your steps, if necessary. Failure to keep track of basic information such as reference codes can result in unnecessary complications at a later date, including the inability of researchers to reference material correctly or staff in the National Archives to be able to help with queries that may arise. For more information please see Referencing archives.