For example, what medium are they recorded/stored in? Is it a hybrid/mix as technology has evolved?

And, does a court automatically receive copies of all other regional courts of the same and higher degree of superiority's decisions periodically? Or would a Willesden County Court archive only have case decisions that were issued in that facility / court division?

And how far back would they go?

1 Answer 1


How are courts' official case law archives distributed and stored?

Staring around the late 18th or early 19th century, until sometime in the second half of the 20th century, private commercial published firms with a legal publication specialty regularly collected paper copies of reasoned court opinions in appellate cases from court clerks or parties to cases, retype set the opinions, and published them in bound volumes of appellate decisions, which were then sold to law firms and law libraries, usually, but not always, with editorial annotations.

For part of this time period, there were in addition or in lieu of independently operating publishing firms that published reports of appellate court decisions, officially sanctioned private publishing companies that did so on a commissioned basis by the governmental entity whose decisions were published in officially sanctioned court reporting volumes, usually with less editorial annotation.

There are reported cases going back hundreds of years before that in England and Wales, but mostly, the selection of cases that were reported was sporadic and opportunistic, rather than comprehensive in this time period. Also, some of the earliest English law case are recounted only in second hand reports of those decisions, rather than in verbatim transcripts of oral decisions of (or in the original verbatim written opinions of) the judge or lord making the decision. Sometimes these second hand accounts were the equivalent of personal notes of the barristers or other participants in the case, and sometimes these second hand accounts were the practical equivalent of newspaper accounts of the cases in question. But, at other times they were part of the official records of the court or lord making the decision. Record keeping in that era was somewhat irregular and inconsistent. Even when contemporaneous official records were made by the court deciding the cases in question, sometimes the original records have now been lost or destroyed.

The courts and law firms then used these report of decided cases to authoritatively identify appellate court precedents, typically by reporter name, volume, and the page upon which the court decision appeared.

Later on, other specialty commercial publications indexed instances in which one case cited to another case to facilitate determinations regarding whether old case precedents were still good law or had been overruled in part of in full, or questioned, by later cases.

The publication of court opinions in electronic form first starts to appear in the 1970s or 1980s, initially in bulk "sneaker net" media usable only by firms with mainframe computers before widespread personal computer ownership and the widespread availability of Internet access made individual court opinions in electronic form widely available on a case by case basis. Electronic form court opinion publication had become ubiquitous by sometimes around the first decade of the 21st century, with non-proprietary government sponsored neutral citation forms appearing widely five to ten years after and only becoming the majority practice in the second decade of the 21st century. The dead tree paper form court reporters continue to be published (now from electronic rather than paper originals) in almost all jurisdictions where they were historically published.

Trial court case opinions were historically not distributed at all except by interested parties obtaining copies from the court clerk or the party that served the documents upon them, and except for sporadically collected exceptional trial court rulings, this continued to be the norm until sometime in the last twenty-five years of the 20th century or the early 21st century.

would a Willesden County Court archive only have case decisions that were issued in that facility / court division?

And how far back would they go?

There are two separate judicial branch operations to consider.

The court clerk has an official archive of case decisions only from that facility/court division/court clerk's office administrative unit, historically, in part form, then in microfiche, and now in electronic form spanning various kinds of media over the late 20th century and early 21st century as these technologies developed. I am not familiar with the record retention practices of different courts and archival indexes often note that significant subsets of records in particular places that were once kept in paper form have been destroyed by mishaps such as fires, floods, riots, building collapses, mold, paper decay, and plumbing emergencies, so in any particular location the extent of the archive's completeness varies.

There was a major effort to preserve old records on michofiche when that technology was invented, and some kinds of records were maintained on papers and in conditions better suited to document preservation than others. Of course, reporters decisions survived better since there were many copies of each one and so some editions of each volume of case reporters usually survived and some were republished from time to time.

does a court automatically receive copies of all other regional courts of the same and higher degree of superiority's decisions periodically?

A separate operation of many courts is the maintenance of a law library for use by the judges of the court and also by law firms and lawyers and members of the public who could not afford to have their own law libraries.

This operation would typically order all of the case reporters, statutory compilations, legal treatises, and other legal authorities that the particular law library's users would need and that it could afford within its budget. Typically, regional law libraries were serviceable and sufficient but not on a par with the best university law libraries and the law libraries of the most important appellate courts. Often volumes in law libraries had to be used on the premises and could not be removed from the library room or building which was usually in or near either a court house or a university or was a part of a public library.


All dates in this answer are approximate.

  • What are “trial court cases”? Mar 10, 2023 at 2:24
  • 1
    A trial court case is the first instance litigation of a case in a court that concludes in a judgment of guilty or not guilty and a sentence in a criminal case, or a judgment for the plaintiff in some dollar amount or for some injunctive relief or for the defendant denying relief on each claim in the civil case. An appellate court is a court reviewing a trial court's decision for correctness when acting in that capacity. Many English courts have both appellate and original jurisdiction, so these courts can act as a trial court in some cases and as an appellate court in other cases.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 10, 2023 at 2:32
  • A typical court case opinion is either a reasoned ruling on a pretrial motion, or is a reasoned finding of fact, conclusion of law, and judgment written by a judge following a bench trial.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 10, 2023 at 2:39

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