Find out how to access historic civil and criminal case records

Find information on where you can access civil and criminal case records depending on the year and county.

Some historic civil and criminal case records are available online on familysearch.org, which is free once you create an account. 

Table of Contents

Civil and criminal case records after 1860

If you are looking for records from after 1860, whether the records were retained and where they are located will depend on the specific court, county, and docket number. Please fill out the Court Archives Information Request Form, and the Judicial Archivist can direct you to the appropriate place. 

Civil and criminal case records before 1860

Digital collections of record books are often available on FamilySearch (linked below). If you are looking for file papers (case files), please fill out the Court Archives Information Request Form to ask about these collections.

> County Court (1636 - 1692)

Inferior quarter courts were established in 1636 at Ipswich, Salem, Newtown (Cambridge), and Boston. When counties were created in 1643, these became the county courts of Essex, (Old) Norfolk, Middlesex, and Suffolk, respectively. These courts had jurisdiction over civil and criminal business and public works, and additional functions were added over time. The county courts performed these roles until the provincial government of Massachusetts Bay was founded in 1692. At that time, their duties were divided between the courts of common pleas (for civil business) and courts of general sessions of the peace (for criminal business and county administration).

> Court of Common Pleas (1692 - 1859)     

Courts of Common Pleas heard civil cases in each county for actions that valued at least 40 shillings. A justice of the peace heard lesser disputes. The governor and council appointed 4 judges, who sat at quarterly sessions that the legislature determined. These sittings typically coincided with sittings for courts of general sessions of the peace. Rulings could be appealed to the Superior Court of Judicature (later the Supreme Judicial Court) in the same county. Courts of common pleas received the criminal powers and duties of courts of general sessions of the peace intermittently throughout the early 19th century. The responsibilities were permanently transferred in 1827, and courts of common pleas continued to hear both civil and criminal cases until the Superior Court was created in 1859.

> Court of General Sessions of the Peace (1692-1827)

Courts of General Sessions of the Peace heard criminal cases and oversaw county administration. Justices of the peace appointed by the governor and council served the courts. The legislature determined the date and location for quarterly sittings, where the entire bench would preside over criminal jury trials prosecuted by the attorney general. Rulings could be appealed to the Superior Court of Judicature (later the Supreme Judicial Court) to present the case before another jury. The courts of general sessions were abolished in 1827. All criminal powers were transferred to the courts of common pleas and administrative authorities were transferred to the county commissioners and commissioners of highways.

> Supreme Judicial Court (1780 - )

The Supreme Judicial Court was established in 1780 under the Judiciary branch as the state’s general trial court. It succeeded the Superior Court of Judicature. By 1782, it was defined that the court had jurisdiction over appeals, pleas, capital offenses, and crimes against the public good. The Supreme Judicial Court served as a circuit court, sitting in each county. Sittings with at least 3 justices addressed capital offenses, appeals, and all issues in law. Single justice sittings could hear cases that had not been tried in the inferior courts of common pleas and general sessions of the peace, and were reviewed by the full court as needed. The appellate nature of the court was reinforced when the Superior Court was created in 1859 and held the same powers and jurisdiction as the Supreme Judicial Court. The Supreme Judicial Court for the Commonwealth was created in 1860 so appeals from all counties could be heard under a single body.

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Elizabeth Bouvier (617) 557-1082
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