Communities and Justice

Rare books

The Library has a collection of some 250 rare books housed in a purpose-built, temperature-controlled room. These books were all printed before 1800 and, like the convicts of the day, were transported by ship from England.

Law reports and legislation are not included in the rare book collection, and pre-1800 imprints of law reports and legislation are shelved in the open access collection. The exception are some editions of the nominate reports.

The collection includes:

  • Le Grande Abridgment - Fitzherbert (1565 edition), which is the oldest published work in the library collection
  • Year Books (published 1679)
  • Nominate Reports (published from the late 16th century until the 1860s).

For a full list of the rare books held by the Law Courts Library, select from one of the options on the left.

The following describes the origins of the Year Books and Nominate reports, and how they were used in previous centuries:

Year Books

The first English law reports were compiled during the final years of reign of Henry III, in the form of  Year Books. These reports cover English court decisions from the late 13th century to 1535. They are part of the Sir James Martin collection, and comprise the series published in 1679. The former Chief Justice's collection was acquired by the government on his death in 1886. 

The original Year Books were manuscripts, thought to have been compiled by lawyers, students, clerks, and/or serjeants, from notes they had taken in court while listening to the oral pleadings. This may explain why there can be several versions of the same case.

The Year Books were written in Law French, the official language of the law in England at that time. Their authors were anonymous. The invention of the printing press significantly enhanced the distribution of the Year Books, as copies were printed and circulated among lawyers and students. It is sobering to consider that the penalty for some of the criminal cases reported was 'to  be hanged, drawn and quartered'.

A comprehensive account of the Year Books and their features and shortcomings has been given by Leslie Downer. Downer contends that the Year Books were "put together for the use, benefit and information of the practising profession, but inevitably their value for the instruction of learners became in due course apparent". [1]

The ability to locate the vast body of law contained within the Reports was enhanced with the publication of  Le Grande Abridgment where Fitzherbert abridged 13,485 Year Book cases, under 263 titles in alphabetical order.

Nominate reports

The sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries mark the transition from medieval to modern law reporting. The last of the Year Books was published during Henry VIII's reign  in 1535. By the time Henry's daughter Elizabeth was queen, individual reporters were publishing  reports of cases under their own names. These series collectively became known as nominate reports.

Some of these reporters gained a good reputation for coverage, accuracy and reliability, while others were criticised by judges for producing reports of dubious quality. When Mr Preston cited a case from Barnardiston's Reports, Lord Lyndhurst said:

"Barnardiston, Mr Preston! I fear that is a book of no great authority; I recollect, in my younger days, it was said of Barnardiston that he was accustomed to slumber over his note-book, and the wags in the rear took the opportunity of scribbling nonsense in it". [2]

Remarks about inaudibility recur, reminiscent of the complaints of court reporters today. In one 1587 case manuscript, Serjeant Walmsley's argument is noted only briefly on the grounds that the reporter had been disturbed from his place and hence could not hear properly. It was also said of Espinasse's Reports: "Mr Espinasse was deaf. He heard one half of a case and reported the other." [3]

Authenticity of cases can also be a problem with some series of nominate reports, as many were published posthumously without the permission of the author or their editorial assistance and advice. For example, the Dyers Reports, published posthumously a century after they were compiled, are a  selection from original notebooks which were never intended to be made public.

Despite the variation in quality, accuracy and authenticity, the reports of Plowden, Coke and Burrows are highly regarded. Plowden's are taken to be the pattern reports should follow, and Burrows is credited with the introduction of the modern headnote.

Elizabethan lawyer and member of the Middle Temple, Edmund Plowden recorded the pleadings, arguments of counsel and the judgment, together with his own comments on the case. Both Plowden and Coke first recorded cases for their private use. Plowden only arranged for his notes to be published as Plowden's Commentaries (1571) in order to forestall the publication by others of corrupt copies.

The Law Courts Library's 1761 edition of Plowden's Commentaries was previously owned by former NSW Chief Justice Sir Frederick Darley, while the 1779 edition is part of the Wentworth collection. The Darley volume contains the inscriptions of three earlier owners, although it is not known which of the four brought it to our shores.

Of the Library's 16th and 17th century works, the commentaries and reports of Sir Edward Coke are the most used. Coke, as a lawyer and subsequently a judge, observed and recorded all the cases he judged important from 1579 for the next four decades. WJV Windeyer writes that:

"Coke's writings exercised great influence on the development of the law; and his statements of rules of law, as distinct from his opinion on historical matters, are today accepted as authoritative. His knowledge of the ancient law of England which is to be found in the Year Books and the old writers has never been rivalled, and in his works he made it available to men of his own time and later times". [4]

1. L Downer, "Problems in the Year Books" (1990) 6 Australian Bar Review p157-158

2. JW Wallace, The Reporters, Philadelphia, Johnston, 3 rd ed 1855, p261

3. T Mathew, "Law French" (1938) 54 Law Quarterly Review p.368

4. WJV Windeyer, Lectures on Legal History, Sydney, Lawbook Company, 1938, Ch 15.

Last updated:

08 Nov 2023

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