Monthly Archives: March 2021

The English Reports

Although this project is focused on the acts passed by the British parliament, the law made by Judges, in the courts, is a constituent part of the common law system. It is also just as rich as historical source material, in both quantity and quality. And similarly, it requires much the same sifting and organization as the statutes do, although thankfully much of the heavy lifting was done in the early twentieth century with the consolidation of the many historic series of law reports in the form of the English Reports.

To this end, I have now added to the bibliographies of British legal materials one listing all the freely available volumes of the English Reports. Of the 178 volumes published between 1901 and 1930, I have found 153 accessible  digitizations online, held variously by Google Books, Hathi Trust, and Internet Archive. In all, I estimate they contain approximately 200,000 pages of text, covering cases from 1220 to 1865. (In 1866, the ICLR began publication of their own series of Law Reports.)

These Reports are very different from the Proceedings of the Old Bailey; those are the records of the regular business of London’s main courthouse, whilst these are selected, important precedents set out in the high courts. They are not intended to gather the legally mundane, or record charges, facts and judgements, but collate those decisions and opinions that interpreted and clarified the statute law. But notwithstanding their specific legal purpose, there is considerable larger historical interest in these volumes. For example, Somerset v Stewart, 1772, is the case that led to the end of slavery in Britain, and the King v Thames Ditton the case that showed how ambiguous and precarious that ending was. The Reports are also international and far-reaching: there are cases concerning India, the Caribbean, and relating to international and maritime law.

But such is the volume of material – most volumes are well over one thousand pages – that it is difficult to know what exactly is within them, or get any sense of how matters are distributed across time and space.

Happily, that the two index volumes are freely available goes some way to making this vast compilation useable; there is also a table of the books comprising each volume available via the Wayback Machine. Some volumes of the Reports – it is unclear which – can be found on CommonLII in searchable PDF format. I am looking for other reference material, and considering the best way to present it digitally. The ideal solution would be to OCR it all and have it as plain text, but that is too much work for one person to do on top of producing a standardized collection of the statutes.