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Durham County Record Office: the official archive service for County Durham and Darlington

Courts

Information about court records in Durham County Record Office and elsewhere.

Assize Court

Only Assize Courts could deal with offences which carried the death penalty or transportation for life. Assize records are held in The National Archives. There is a guide to Assizes criminal trials 1559-1971 in The National Archives In-depth research guides.

In Durham County Record Office you will find calendars of prisoners tried at Durham Assizes, and indexes to the calendars, from 1857 to 1921. You will find further information in Quarter Sessions records in the Guides to Records section of our on Information Leaflets.

County Courts

County Courts deal with the majority of civil cases, as well as some family issues such as divorce hearings, adoption hearings and bankruptcy hearings. You will find more information on their function on the website of Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service

Access to court registers is restricted for 100 years from the last date in the register. 

Crown Court

The Crown Court was established in 1972, by the Courts Act 1971, to replace the courts of Assize and Quarter Sessions. The Court deals with more serious criminal cases such as murder, rape and robbery, some of which are on appeal or referred from Magistrates' courts. You will find more information on its function on the website of Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service.

The Record Office holds no records of the Crown Court.

The National Archives holds some case files for Durham Crown Court, reference J 230. Case files are on open access unless otherwise indicated. All indictments and some case files have not yet been transferred to The National Archives. They remain in the custody of Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service.

There is a guide to Criminal courts in England and Wales from 1972 in The National Archives In-depth research guides.

Petty Sessions and Magistrates Courts

Petty Sessions began to appear at the beginning of the 18th century to alleviate the workload on the Justices of the Peace in Quarter Sessions. They dealt with minor cases such as petty theft, drunkenness, minor assaults, larceny, trespass, bastardy and failure to pay maintenance, as well as licensing and adoption.

In 1971 Magistrates' Courts replaced the Petty Sessions.

You will find lists of petty session districts and the places included in them in local county directories.

To Search the Catalogue type Petty Sessional Division into the Keywords box.

Access to the registers is restricted for 100 years from the last date in the register. Contact us for advice about access to court records.

Quarter Sessions

Quarter Sessions were not established in Durham until after 1536. They were held by the Justices of the Peace (also known as magistrates), four times a year, at Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer and Michaelmas.

Quarter Sessions had a judicial function dealing with criminal matters from petty larceny to rape cases.

They also had an administrative function. Administrative orders were made at Quarter Sessions concerning the repair of bridges and highways, the maintenance of gaols, the poor law and many other matters. Constables, both high or chief (of the ward) and petty (of the parish or constabulary) had to attend sessions and were sworn in before the court.

In Durham only one main record was kept of the proceedings at Quarter Sessions: the 'order books'. In these volumes the clerk briefly recorded the official business of the court of Quarter Sessions, both judicial, noting pleas and judgements, and administrative.

The indictment rolls (sometimes called plea rolls) were only presentments of indictments by the grand jury to the court. Sometimes a note of the plea of the accused was added, but rarely the judgement. Early rolls also had a copy of the justices' writ to the sheriff to summons or arrest persons indicted for the next sessions. Indictments were written on long membranes of parchment, fastened at the head and rolled.

Access to Quarter Sessions records is restricted for 100 years. Contact us for advice about access to court records.

See Quarter Sessions records in the Guides to Records section of our Information Leaflets.

To Search the Catalogue select Quarter Sessions from the Catalogue title drop-down list.