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Legal research for historians: Great Britain

What is a law report?

A law report is a precis of a legal case. In general, law reports emphasize points of interest to lawyers; the facts of the case may be summarized only briefly. However, a law report may be the only record available of a particular case. It is rare to find complete records for legal cases, even cases that were quite important.

Year books: law reports before the 17th century

Up to 1535, the Year Books are the primary source for the history of English law. Most are in French; a few editions include an English translation. Many have been edited and published by the Selden Society (Firestone KD456.S4) or the Ames Foundation, or as part of the Rolls Series. There is an invaluable index, with case summaries and references, at

Law reports before 1865

The English reports. Abingdon, Oxon, England : Professional Books Ltd., 1986. (178 volumes)
Firestone Library (F) KD270 1220 .E5 1986
British cases decided before 1865 were first published in volumes known by the name of the reporter or the presiding judge, and known now as "nominate" reports. English reports reprinted and indexed these "nominate"' reports for the convenience of those who did not have access to the older publications. The Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations refers users to the location in English reports of reprinted nominate reports. Readers seeking the original publications should search the catalog for print, microform and digital editions.

Modern law reports (since 1865)

The all England law reports. London: The Law Journal, 1948-1991.
RECAP KD288 .A64

The English and Empire digest: with complete and exhaustive annotations. London: Butterworth, 1919-
Firestone Library (F) KD296 .xE5 1919
Location has: v.1-48;, 1933;, 1934; suppl.1939 pt.1-2

This compilation is arranged by subject and includes significant cases from the British empire, including Canada, Australia, India, and elsewhere. It covers primarily 19th c. cases; the later volumes obviously include more 20th c. cases.

Abridgments and digests

Abridgments and digests are the easiest and quickest guide to English common and statute law on a given subject. The most useful are:

A general abridgment of law and equity, alphabetically digested under proper titles: with notes and references to the whole. Charles Viner. 2d ed. London : G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1791-1795. (24 volumes plus 6 vol. supplement for 1799-1806)
Rare Books (Ex) 7852.937