The Courts

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Court of Equity:

  • Apply the principles of equity, not common law, and cases can go on and on.
  • More valuable as records than other law courts.
  • Good info 16th C to late 18th C.
  • Most are written in English and not Latin.
  • Genealogy uses - can identify people of the same name / there are overseas links / show status and financial standing / helps ID illegitimate children / if cross generational than helps with illness and death / all social classes as all people gave evidence / can create pedigrees and relationships.
  • Cases involve disputes over land and thithes / slave trade ships / family trusts / fraud and deceipt / will disputes.

Kings Bench:

  • Westminster from 1421-1875.
  • Pleas (civil) and Crown (criminal) & Common Pleas.
  • Involves civil disputes and some coroner unquisitions "de banco rolls".
  • Could start here and go to Chancery property or finance.
  • Similar records as others. (CP40) 1194-1880

Court of Wards:

  • Tenant rights, manorial records, if an heir was under age then it vested in Monarch as the Ward.
  • Wardship often sold to next of kin.
  • 1540-1645
  • WARD class in TNA
  • Deeds could be in French or German, account books, Grants of Livery are in Patent rolls.
  • Look in IPM (??) first to see if wardship exists.

Other Courts:

  • Court of Exchequer - deals with debts to the Crown. Around 100,000 cases.
  • Court of Requests - 1483-1642. Cases too small for Chancery. The 'poor man's court'. c. 14,000 cases. Property / marriage contracts / annuities. In English. Has calanders but not alphabetical.
  • Court of the Star Chamber - 1483-1642. Runs with the Court of Requests. Provide redress to small landowners against great landowners. By 1600 only 700 cases. Judicial arm of Kings Council. Public disorder / riot / assult / trade / fraud / land disputes / sedition / hunting / defamation. Convictions led to fines. Can use Barnes Index for access but it is easier just to look through. There is an index.
  • For the Church Courts see entry for 17th century records.


Began after Exchequer about 1200s. Earliest case dates to 1386. First in French and then English. From 1326 sat at Westminster Hall. c.1.8 million cases. After 1875 Supreme Court of Judicature takes over and Chancery becomes a subdivision. Queens Bench covered other matters such as civil cases on contractural disputes, libel, debt, personal injury.

Followed a loose set of rules to avoid slow pace of change and possible harshness of common law. A greater remit than common law courts. Formally led by Lord Chancellor and assisted by judges of the common law courts. Then? led by Master of the Rolls. Many clerks and others who were 'sinecures', no wages so charged large fees.

Had juries over matters pf equity - property trusts / wills / land / estates admin / estates of lunatics / guardianship of infants / apprenticeships.

Civil litigants - could have cases heard in different courts then end up in Chancery. Can also have a case running in more than one court. You ned to know the date/s when the case was heard and the names of the litagants.

Money in Chancery - looked after money and property awarded through courts to people who can't look after it themselves. Could come via family court / civil inhuries compensation board / compulsory purchase orders / legacies / dissenting shareholders / proceeds from mortgage foreclosures.


1. Plantiff brings case against Defendant.

2. Plantiff makes a Bill of Complaint - Defendant answers the Bill.

3. Plantiff does an Exception - Defendant gives a Rejoiner.

4. Plantiff then does a Rebuttal (contradiction) - Defendant does a Surrebuttal.

Can be filed in different places.


Bill of Complaint - states names, occupation, residence and nature of complaint.

Interrogatories = questions to be put to both parties.

Pleading = statements made by parties. Submitted to Lord Chanc. Needed it to claim that common law courts couldn't give you justice. Plantiff could submit a Replication which might in turn prodcue a Rejoiner from the Defendent.

Evidence = oaths, depositions, affidavits. For depo and aff both sides drew up separate lists of questions to be put to deponents. Answers - depositions - give infor about the case not included in pleaddings , such as deponent's name.

Decrees & Orders = don't always exist.

Masters report and accounts = remittance for investigation and admin. Judges could refer matters for investigation or action to Chancery Masters in Ordinary. Could form the basis of the final decree. Need to know the name of Master dealing with suit, leads to Masters A/Cs. c.1750-1850s are online but you need to know what you are looking for.

Final decrees = decisions and appeals.

Court Remedies:

  • Specific performance = court order requires party in breach of contract to perform obligations.
  • Injunctions = prevent a party doing something.
  • Damages = money compensation.


Have to look in several series for all the above types of documents. Documents can be large and cumbersome. Need to read at TNA so take photos and read at home. The handwriting is normally OK but includes many legal phrases that don't mean much. Often rolled together so use weights. Transpose into short, readable paragraphs. Determine if the doct tells the full story - usually need the full series. Use TNA guides and ask advisors in the Map Room.

Medieval Chancery in (C1), searchable by name. Index for Chancery before 1558 are on Ancestry, tell you the vol and page to look at, at TNA.

Six Clerk Series - clerks names of Bridges / Collins / Hamilton / Mitford / Reynardson / Whittington. It is which clerk started the series (can move over to another - TNA should tell you). Before 1714 in (C5)-(C10)

Where to find Town Depositions (London):

  • 1534-1853 (C24)
  • 1854-1880 (C15) (C16) or (J54)
  • unpublished (C23)

Where to find Country Depositions (provinces):

  • 1558-1649 (C21)
  • 1649-1714 (C22)
  • 1715-1880 (C11)-(C14)
  • no J series

Ass. Avid (if any) (C31) and (C41)

Decrees & Orders made during a case, and final judgement, were recorded in Entry Books, give date of recording. Two sequences. Note that annual indexes start the year from Michaelmas term.

Final Decrees - 1534-1903. 2 series - Decree Rolls and Supple. series. Enrolled decrees have a place name index. If not enrolled then found in Decree ad Order Books.

Locating a Chancery Case

Filed by record category and at least by surname of Plantiff and Defendent, look in TNA catalogue for surname.

Identify document ref. for Pleadings. Beyond Pleadings, short titles are often the only description in the catalogue and usually include surnames of first named plantiff and one defendent.

Later stages of a case requires use of contemporary paper indexes - in the Map Room at TNA.

Equity Pleadings database now on Discovery.

Do a surname search to pull out all docts together on the same case. Must have litigant.

Chancery calander is alphabetical by Plantiff, although within letters is not alpha.

Try for some cases.

Cause Books 1842-1880:

  • (C32)
  • Bring together all references to decrees etc
  • Give overview of each cause

Bernau Index:

  • Chancery proceedings but covers other courts too.
  • Sorted by surname, includes variants but variants not together (?).
  • Digital on LDS Family History Centre.
  • Information varies
  • TNA database mostly superceedes it