The Language of Law Reports

In the United Kingdom and in Canada the history of the language of law reports is as much about the influence of the French language as it is about the use of English. To a lessor extent such history is also about the influence of Latin.

Consider that the first English law reports were in the French language for over 300 years, specifically:

– the first English law reports are found in the Year Books that run from 1260 to 1535 and they were written 100% in the French language. See page 99, The Language of the Law by David Mellinkoff (Little Brown 1963). In Langdell Hall at Harvard Law School pages of the Year Books are on display;

– Sir Edward Coke (1551-1633) published his English law reports in the French language. Coke’s law reports covered the period 1600 to 1615.

While the first English law reports were in French for several hundred years, the language of the people during that period was English.

English as a separate language dates from around 450 AD. The name “English” gets it name from the invading Angles (invading the British Isles from northern Europe). The Angles were largely illiterate and their courts and trial procedures were oral.

Following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 the spoken language of the law was trilingual, namely, English, French and Latin. In England, 1066 also marked the beginning of a tradition of French as a language of learning and as a language of the law.

In the 13th Century English statutes were in Latin and French; and in the 14th Century French became the regular language of English statutes.

During the Middle English Period (c. 1150 to c. 1475) more than 10,000 French words became English words. 

In England the movement of the language of the law toward the use of English began in the 15th Century.

In 1650 an English statute required that all law reports be printed in English only. After 1704 all English law reports are in the English language. But note that because the decisions of the judges were for centuries oral only, the reports for many years were summaries only prepared by the reporters.

Today in Canada, all reasons for judgment of the Supreme Court of Canada are translated so that reports are in both English and French. The only province of Canada with bilingual law reports is New Brunswick (all reasons for judgment of the Court of Appeal that are published are in both English and French and most trial judgments are published in both languages). In the Province of Quebec, where French is the only official language, the reasons for judgment are in either French or English depending upon the language used at trial. Most Quebec law reports are published in French and the decisions are not translated.


  1. Slade’s Case (1602), 4 Co.Rep. 92a 76 E.R. 1074, is written in English. It’s intersting that, even though the date of the case is given as the Trinity Term of 44 Eliz., the court is still called “KIng’s Bench”.

  2. Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in November 1558. She died in March, 1603. Trinity Term is principally in June (and probably was in 1602 as well, since Trinity Sunday has not moved).

    So maybe the law reports counted to 44 in a way that arrived at Trinity Term in 1603, after the Queen had died. The Queen being dead, long live the King!

    So much Wikipedia tells me. It would take more research than I have time for right now to see if the Michaelmas or Hilary Terms of 44 Eliz. still had a court of Queen’s Bench.

    I believe that a statute of Henry V ( required that statutes be in English, but research could improve the chances of that statement’s being accurate…

  3. Queen Elizabeth was not dead in 1602. Trinity term, a phrase still used at Oxford and Cambridge, is indeed in the summer and at the universities is the last term of the academic year. Trinity term in the 44th year of Elizabeth I would have been in the summer of 1602 and would have ended on the 44th anniversary of her accession to the throne.

  4. I couldn’t figure out how to put images in a comment, so I started a new post: More on the Language of Law Reports.

  5. If anyone wants to research law French beyond case reporters, they might check out this article from Canadian Law Library Review,