Business, Legal & Accounting Glossary
Books of legal cases, or reporters, published annually in England from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century.
The development of English common law was based on the law of the case. Lawyers and courts relied on previous court decisions that involved similar issues of law and fact. The law of the case could not take hold, however, until cases were recorded, reported, and eventually published. The English Year Books, which were created in about 1290, are the first example of a reporting system. Though they were informal and often contained running commentary about the judges’ personalities and the lawyers’ quips, the Year Books were referred to increasingly by judges and lawyers.
During the reign of King Edward I (1272-1307) legal materials began to be collected into separate books for each year. During this early period, the Year Books were extremely informal. They contained accounts by anonymous scribes and law students of courtroom proceedings and arguments that helped explain the judicial decision. The quality of the reports varied according to the abilities of the note-takers. Despite these shortcomings, the reports conveyed basic procedural information to lawyers and students, but they stated few rules of law.
English legal publishing began in 1481 with the printing of the Year Book. Until that time Year Books had been prepared and circulated in handwritten copies. It was during this period that the Year Books became more professional and uniform. They were published at the expense of the Crown, but they were not official reports of cases. The printed versions were arranged by year, but it sometimes took two or three years after a case had been decided for it to be reported.
The compilation of Year Books ceased in 1535 during the reign of King Henry VIII, for reasons that remain unclear. Thereafter court reports were issued in a different form by named reporters.
Since the late nineteenth century, modern critical editions of the Year Books have been prepared by the Selden Society. Legal historians have found the Year Books a rich source of information about law and life in medieval England.
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This glossary post was last updated: 18th March, 2020