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The Irish court system was based on the English system of law. The Four Courts of Equity were the Exchequer, Chancery, Common Pleas, and King’s/Queen’s Bench. This article will explore the history and records of these four courts and their genealogical and historical application.
The destruction of the Public Record Office in 1922 significantly impacted the record availability for these courts. Of the four courts, only a small collection of original records for the court of Chancery survive. There are however, a number of indexes, abstracts, and transcripts that are available.
Court records contain information about people who were involved in litigation or other court matters. Most court records provide lists of people who served as defendants, plaintiffs, jurors, or witnesses. Court records may provide these individuals' residences, occupations, physical descriptions, and family relationships.
Irish court records are broadly classed as temporal or ecclesiastical. The temporal courtsinclude the Courts of Chancery, Exchequer, King's Bench, Common Pleas, and individual county courts. The ecclesiastical courtshad jurisdiction over ecclesiastical issues, matrimony, and probate. The ecclesiastical courts include the Prerogative and Consistory. See:
Falley, Margaret Dickson. Irish and Scotch-Irish Ancestral Research. 2 vols. Evanston, Illinois: Margaret Dickson Falley, 1961-62. (Family History Library book Ref 941.5 D27f 2 vols.) The book provides a good description of court records and lists repositories and published inventories of court records. Many of the published inventories she notes are available at the Family History Library. They are listed in the Place Search of the catalog under the following headings:
IRELAND - ARCHIVES AND LIBRARIES
IRELAND - ARCHIVES AND LIBRARIES - INDEXES
IRELAND - ARCHIVES AND LIBRARIES - INVENTORIES, REGISTERS, CATALOGS
The Family History Library has few court records. Court records available at the library are listed in the Place Search of the catalog under the following headings:
IRELAND - COURT RECORDS
The Temporal Courts evolved from the Curia Regis, or the King's Court. In England, the King was present at the proceedings. In Ireland, the court was usually presided over by the Justiciar.
Court of the Exchequer
“The Court of Exchequer, or that portion of the Curia Regis which went by that name, must have been constituted very soon after the arrival of Henry II in Ireland, as the collection and accounting for the revenue would be one of the first steps of the government established by him. The first reference to the existence of such a Court in Ireland is dated 1203. It is said to have derived its name from the chequered cloth resembling a chess board, which was spread upon the table upon which the King’s accountants paid out the sums due by them. The Court, in its form, followed the English precedent, and was presided over by the Justiciar, with the assistance of the Chancellor, Treasurer and Barons. After a time, the Justiciar ceased to attend, and the Chancellor, probably being unable to attend through the pressure of other business, left his duties to his clerk, who later on became Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Court was at first mainly a Revenue Court and was divided into two sides, the Exchequer of Account, and the Exchequer of Receipt. Before the former appeared the sheriffs to settle their accounts, and any judicial decisions were made in this Court. The Exchequer of Receipt was concerned with the payments and receipts, and its officers checked the accounts.
“It was prohibited by law to try common pleas between party and party in the Court of Exchequer, though it was apparently often evaded, as we find from statutes…passed to enforce the prohibition. The only cases of the kind allowed in the Exchequer were those where the King or his officers there were concerned. The prohibition remained in force till the end of the reign of Elizabeth. But in the reign of James I, we find pleas between parties and parties other than the King’s ministers being pleaded in the Exchequer under the fiction that the plaintiff was a debtor to the King and that through the damage suffered at the hands of the defendant he was the less able (quo minus) to pay his debts. From this time, we have a regular Plea side of the Exchequer.
“About the same time, we find the Court hearing ‘English Bills,’ thus creating a third side, being the Equity or Chancery side of the Exchequer. These bills were brought before the Court under a similar fiction to the suits on the Plea side. Thus there were in the Court of Exchequer three sides, i., the Plea side, ii., the Equity side, iii., the Revenue side. The Equity side was abolished in 1850, while the Plea side and the Revenue side became fused in the Queen’s Bench Division in 1898 under 60 & 61 Vic., c. 66, s. 1.
Officers of the Exchequer
“The Court was presided over by:
The Lord High Treasurer: the highest officer of the Exchequer, and a Judge in matters of equity. His duties gradually became more or less of a sinecure (little work with pay), and after 1793 became vested in Commissioners who held office till 1817 when the treasuries of England and Ireland were amalgamated.
The Chancellor of the Green Wax of the Exchequer, who had the Seal of the Court, and was a Judge in matters of equity. His office continued till 1817 when…it was granted to the Chancellor of the Exchequer of England.
The Barons, consisting of the Lord Chief Baron, and puisne (inferior) barons, who had judicial power in all causes of law, equity and revenue in their Court.”
The Court of Chancery
"The Chancery of the Kingdom was originally a department or branch of the Curia Regis, in which the Chancellor acted as the King's principal Secretary. He had the custody of the Great Seal; all royal charters, letters patent and close and other public instruments issued out of the Chancery, and were enrolled there; his writs set in motion the courts of justice, and authorised the issue of money from the King's Exchequer. Thus he was at first an executive rather than a judicial officer.
"In 1232 we get the first intimation of a definite office of the Chancery. The office was granted to Ralph, bishop of Chichester, the chancellor of England, for life. He was to execute the Irish office by a deputy, to be approved of by the King. The deputy chancellor was to have the seal with which the affairs of the King and of the land of Ireland were transacted. he was to be a member of the Council and of the executive government, and to have a clerk in the Exchequer and also in the Justiciar's Court, to keep counter rolls of the proceedings of these courts."
Source: Wood, Herbert. A Guide to the Public Records Deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland. Dublin: His Majesty's Stationery Office, p.2.
The Court of King's (Queen's) Bench
“The Court of the King’s Bench gradually evolved out of the Justiciar’s Court. In this Court the proceedings in ‘placita coronae’ were kept separate from the ‘placita’ or civil actions.” (Italics added) This was the last of the courts to evolve out of the Curia Regis. It became the “King’s Bench” when Richard II visited Ireland in 1394 and retained the name even after the King returned to England. Originally an itinerate court that followed the King, it acquired a permanent home in Dublin in the sixteenth century and was presided over by a chief justice and two, eventually three (1784) pusines. The court was tasked with adjudicating crimes that disturbed the “King’s Peace.” Thus, criminal offenses most closely associated with the court of the king were handled by the Court of the King’s Bench.
“It took cognizance of common pleas but the unreliability of juries in civil cases led to the loss of this jurisdiction to chancery in the sixteenth century. It was from king's bench that the judges of assize were dispatched on circuit to have the gaols delivered up to them, hear civil actions of nisi prius and resolve cases referred from the quarter-sessions. Through the issue of the prerogative writs of mandamus, certiorari, habeas corpus, quo warranto, and prohibition king’s bench acquired the latter-day equivalent of the reviewing powers of the modern high court over government and the judicial system.”
Source: Byrne, Joseph. Byrne’s Dictionary of Irish Local History, Douglas Village, Cork, 2004. p. 170.
The Court of Common Pleas
“The Court of Common Bench was originally a part of the Curia Regis. It was a Court purely for the trial of cases between subject and subject, whether real, personal or mixed. The earliest notice of this Court in Ireland is to be found in the Great Charter of Ireland (Early Statues, 1 Hen. III.), where it was laid down that ‘Common Pleas shall not follow our Court, but shall be held in some certain place.’ About 1590, the records of this Court, which had been in the custody of the prothonotary, were removed to Bermingham’s Tower, though many were found to be missing. Many of the Plea Rolls of this Court for the reigns of James I. (1603-1624) and Charles I. (1625-1648) were burnt in a fire which occurred in the Tower, c. 1758.”
Commissioners were appointed in Ireland by Act of 28 Hen. VIII (1536), with power to issue probates, faculties, and dispensations. These had previously been under the direction of the Church of Rome, but after cessation with the Church of Rome, these could be granted by the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. Since the Prerogative Court of Armagh was subordinate to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, testators with property elsewhere in the British Isles and in Ireland would likely have their will proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury or have a registered copy there.
"In 1579 (25 May, 21 Eliz.), a commission was granted to Adam, Archbishop of Dublin, and Robert Garvey, M.A., empowering them 'to prove, approve and insinuate the testaments, codicils and last wills and to grant letters of administration, etc., of all and singular persons of the realm of Ireland . . . which have goods and chattels . . . in divers provinces, jurisdictions or dioceses . . . according to the course and order of the Prerogative Court of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the realm of England.' The Prerogative Court for Ireland was apparently created by Letters Patent of 1 Mar., 23 Eliz."1 and exercised authority from that date (1581) until the Probate Act of 1857 established the Principal and District probate registries. However, wills and administrations for the Prerogative Court of Armagh date from the appointment of the commissioners in 1536 to 1857.
Source: 1Herbert Wood, A Guide to the Records Deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland (Dublin: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1919) 222.
The consistory or diocesan courts regulated property within the jurisdiction of the Bishop of each diocese. Fees paid to the Bishop covered the cost of executing the will or administration. The establishment of the Prerogative courts resolved potential disputes between the Bishops of individual dioceses.
“The jurisdiction of the archbishops and bishops in their several dioceses was of a twofold nature, being (1) a voluntary jurisdiction, consisting of the granting of probates and administrations; sequestrations of livings; institutions and collations; licenses for marriage, for curates, schoolmasters, etc.; conservations of churches and churchyards; granting of faculties for building and altering glebe houses, and churches, etc., and (2) a contentious jurisdiction, which comprehended testamentary and matrimonial suits, tithe cases, and causes of correction, such as simony, immorality, non-residence of clergy, and defamation, adultery, etc., of the laity.
“Upon the passing of the Probate Act of 1857 (20 and 21 Vic., C. 79), these Courts and the Court of Prerogative were deprived of their testamentary jurisdiction, and most of the testamentary records belonging to the Diocesan Registries were transferred to the Central and District Registries of the Court of Probate, from whence they were removed to the Public Record Office after the passing of the Public Records (Ireland) Act in 1867.
“By the Act of 32 and 33 Vic., C. 42, it was ordered that all the remaining jurisdiction of these Ecclesiastical Courts, whether contentious or otherwise, in all matters matrimonial, spiritual or ecclesiastical, should cease from 1st January, 1871. By the Act of 33 and 34 Vic., c. 110, a Court for Matrimonial Causes and Matters was constituted, to which all matrimonial causes still pending in the Ecclesiastical Courts at the end of the year 1870 were transferred.”1
Source: 1Herbert Wood, A Guide to the Records Deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland (Dublin: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1919) 225-6.
Irish Court Records
The Nominate Reports for Ireland are distinguished by the name of the Court and divided into Chancery, Exchequer, King’s Bench and Equity, Common Law, Land, and Popery, etc. The standard work for the most comprehensive bibliographical listing of the Irish Nominate Reports is: Higgins, Paul, A Bibliography of Irish Trials and Other Legal Proceedings. Abingdon, Oxford: Professional Books, 1986.
NOMINATE REPORT VOLUMES
1. All Courts – There are Nominate Reports covering all courts for the years 1798-1810; 1827-1838; and 1840-1841.
2. Chancery – The Court of Chancery prepared important documents, writs and letters patent to which a seal was affixed. Chancery also played an equitable jurisdiction in cases or disputes in which no remedy was to be found in Common Law. The nominate reports for Chancery cases cover the years 1766-1791; 1802-1846; and 1850-1866.
3. Circuit Courts – The nominate reports for the Circuit Courts cover the years 1837-1846.
4.Common Law – The nominate reports for the Common Law Court cover the years 1604-1612; 1827-1831; and 1850-1879.
5. Common Pleas – Land disputes were the most common case tried in Common Pleas and the most probably court for commoners. The nominate reports for Common Pleas cover the years 1839-1840. For cases in other years, refer to the Exchequer.
6. Crown Court – The nominate reports for the Crown Court cover the years 1767; and 1822-1840.
7. Ecclesiastical – These “courts dealt largely with marriage and testamentary matters, ecclesiastical administration, cases of clerical misconduct, defamation and suites for the payment of tithe.” There were twenty-six ecclesiastical courts and a Prerogative court in Ireland.
8. Equity – The nominate reports for the Court of Equity cover the years 1867-1878.
9. Exchequer – Cases involving the receipt and payment of money and the auditing of accounts were handled by the Court of the Exchequer. The records were kept or enrolled on the pipe and memoranda rolls. The nominate reports for the Court of Exchequer cover the years 1867-1878.
10. King’s/Queen’s Bench – Presided over criminal cases and offences against the King’s peace. The nominate reports for the King’s/Queen’s Bench cover the years 1604-1612; 1786-1788; 1793-1795; 1798-1834; 1838-1842; and 1846-1848.
11. Registry – The nominate reports for the Registry cases cover the years 1832-1840
12. Rolls – The nominate reports for the Rolls Court cover the years 1816-1834; and 1840-1842.
Irish Statutes are the laws by which Ireland is governed. “A persistent question throughout Irish history concerned the power of the Irish Parliament and the debate over whether other institutions, i.e., the Westminster Parliament, had the right to legislate for Ireland. The Irish Parliament existed from the thirteenth century through the Act of Union in 1800, but was always considered, at least by the English, as subordinate to the Westminster Parliament. One of the key developments in this area was the passage of Poynings’ Law in 1495, which required the Irish to obtain permission from the king and council to hold parliament, and that all proposed statutes be approved by the king and his council.
“In 1719, the English Parliament passed the Declaratory Act (6 Geo., c. 5, 1719, England), which attempted to end the debate by stating that the Parliament at Westminster had the power to legislate for Ireland. However, only sixty years later, in 1782, the Repealing Act (22 Geo. 3, c. 53, 1782, England) repealed the Declaratory Act and gave sole power for Irish legislation to the Irish Parliament. The brief period from 1782 until the Act of Union in 1800 is known as ‘Grattan’s Parliament.’ In 1800 the Irish Parliament agreed to vote itself out of existence by approving the Act of Union with Great Britain (39 & 40 Geo. 3, c.67, 1800, England). From then until the Irish declared independence in 1919 and set up the Dáil Eireann, Irish M.P.s sat in the Parliament at Westminster.”
In 1985, the Irish Parliament in the Republic of Ireland reviewed and revamped many, if not all, of the Irish Statues that were created prior to Ireland’s Independence in 1922.
Statute Rolls, 1427-1800
“These contain the enrolment of all Acts of the Irish Parliament. Up to 1711, the rolls contain both private and public Acts, but from 1715 these are enrolled in separate series of rolls. They are indexed from 1613-1711 for Public Acts, and 1613-1800 for Private Acts. Editions of the Statutes of Ireland have been published by Sir Henry Sydney in 1572, by Sir R. Bolton in 1621, and by Boulter Grierson, the King’s printer, in 1765, the last-named being continued down to 1800 and indexed. B ut all of these have omitted many ancient Acts. To repair this omission, Dr. Henry F. Berry has, under the direction of the Master of the Rolls, published the “Early Statutes, Ireland” (John-Henry V.), and Statutes of Ireland for Hen. VI., and Ed. IV., which contain every statute or ordinance of the Parliaments of Ireland or transmitted form England to be observed here, which can be traced, printed in the original Latin or Norman French, with a translation. There is an inventory of the Statute Rolls in the supplement to the Record Commissioners’ 8th Report, pp. 353-383.”
Inns of Court
The Inns of Court served as the place for educating those who were to become barristers, solicitors, lawyers, attorneys, proctors or Serjeants-at-law. With the exception of King’s Inn, all were located in London and have admission records dating well into the sixteenth century or earlier. For the Inns of Court in London, see London Court Records.
Society of King’s Inn, Dublin – founded in 1541, by a group of judges and prominent lawyers who leased property on the north side of the River Liffey. It was modeled after the English Inns of Court with several significant exceptions. 1) From its inception, an attorney or barrister could not practice the law in Ireland without spending at least some years in one of the English Inns, and 2) English Inns could admit members and call them to the bar. In Ireland however, the Irish society could admit members, but they had to be called to the bar by a Chief Justice.
For a list of attorneys and barristers admitted to King’s Inn, see Keane, Edward, P. Beryl Phair and Thomas U. Sadleir, editors. King’s Inn Admission Papers 1607-1867. Dublin: Dublin Stationery Office for the Irish Manuscripts Commission, 1982. (Family History Library book British 941.83/D1 C4k).
Law lists are a chronological record of barristers and solicitors in Ireland. These have been published annually since 1775.
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