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Court names and functions have continued to evolve since 1789, when courts of justice were first established in Ontario. Until 1881, a distinction was made between courts of common law dealing with criminal matters and courts of equity dealing with civil and property matters. Probate courts are in still another category. See Ontario Probate Records. Very few court records other than probate records are at the Family History Library.
The highest court in the province is now the Supreme Court of Ontario. It is divided into the Court of Appeal and the High Court of Justice. Since 1930, divorce proceedings have been one of the functions of the High Court, or of lower court judges acting as agents of the High Court. The Family History Library has microfilm copies of records of the Supreme Court 1881-1937 (Family History Library film 851370-71.) and of one of its predecessors, the Court of Queen's Bench 1828-1881 (Family History Library film 851369-70). These records are indexed at the beginning of each volume.
At the intermediate level are the County or Judicial District Courts which handle both civil and criminal matters. The inferior Provincial Courts include a Civil Division comprising a number of Small Claims Courts, a Criminal Division, and a Family Division.
Records of the Small Claims Courts and other inferior courts are usually not preserved in archives. Certain types of court files that may be preserved, including adoption records and juvenile court proceedings, have always been considered confidential and therefore of limited access.
Civil and criminal records from the county and district courts are usually sent from the court to the Archives of Ontario after a certain period of time. They are in process of sorting and cataloging some of these records. Most of the records are not indexed.
Until 1980 most Ontario court records were considered public records open for review. This has been changed so that recent records of civil suits, for example, are limited to the lawyers and persons directly involved. Contact the court or the Archives of Ontario to determine accessibility of court records.
Complete transcripts of court actions are rare, although reports of court proceedings may have been published in newspapers. See Ontario Newspapers.
Criminal court records usually consist of abbreviated court minutes (the official court record) and case files (which include indictments, depositions, and records of conviction and sentence).
Civil court records include court minute books, case files (including papers from the original plaintiff's filing to the final judgment), and a variety of other separate series (including judgment books, order books, process books, and procedure [index] books).
Early Court Records
Court records were some of the earliest records created in what is now Ontario. However, many of the very early records have been destroyed, some intentionally as a space-saving measure, some accidentally through fire or flood.
In 1979 the Archives of Ontario received the remaining case files of the Supreme and County Courts of the province dating before 1959. They also hold records of other courts, including the Courts of Quarter Sessions and the Court of Chancery.
Pre-1837, Lieutenant-Governor's Council. Until 1837 the lieutenant-governor of the province and his council had responsibility for most matters of equity, including certain land, business, and family matters. A few of their Orders-in-Council still exist, although many have been lost. Some Orders-in-Council dealing with land transactions have been microfilmed. They are mixed with other records listed in the Family History Library Catalog under ONTARIO - LAND AND PROPERTY.
1837, Court of Chancery. Although the Court of Chancery was established in 1837, case files date only from 1869. Prior to 1881 this court functioned as a superior court of equity exercising jurisdiction over such matters as land patents, estates of incompetent persons, and guardianships. The court was headquartered in Toronto, although between 1857 and 1881 the court's justices were required to go on circuit to county towns. The Archives of Ontario has records and partial indexes for the Court of Chancery.
Early 1800s, Courts of the General Quarter Sessions. The Archives of Ontario also holds some records dating back to the early 19th century for the Courts of General Quarter Sessions of the Peace in Newcastle and Johnstown Districts. Each of the four or more districts in early Ontario had a Court of Quarter Sessions composed of the local justices of the peace or magistrates meeting together four times yearly to judge criminal matters. Until 1841, when District (later County) Councils were established, the Courts of Quarter Sessions also had administrative duties such as collecting assessments, allocating money for roads, and paying official accounts.
Records for the Courts of Quarter Sessions continue into the 20th century and are divided into criminal case files and accounts series.
Other early courts included the following:
- 1790: Court of King's Bench (or Queen's Bench) was established. This court sometimes functioned as a central superior court for the province.
- 1794: District Courts were set up as civil courts to deal with moderate cases not involving title to land.
- 1850: District Courts were renamed County Courts. They gained new civil responsibilities.
- 1874: County Courts gained criminal jurisdiction.
- 1900s: County Court duties expanded to include adoptions, changes of name, and other matters.
An excellent explanation of court records and their use in genealogy is Gordon Dodd's "Court Records as a Genealogical Source in Ontario" in Don Wilson's Readings in Ontario Genealogical Sources, pages 94-105. (Family History Library book 971.3 D27c.)
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