Workbook on Digital Private Papers > Legal Issues

Public Record Acts (PRAs)

The public record acts are important to repositories collecting private papers because the boundaries between public and private records are often blurred. This is particularly true where the private papers of politicians and political parties are concerned, and especially true when dealing with the papers of the governing party and its members. This overlap affects the records that can be accessioned: for example, some of the records created by the London offices of Labour politicians participating in the Paradigm project are captured by public records legislation, and will be transferred to The National Archives. There may also be cases where private papers contain similar information to public records; this requires us to consider the status of the same information at The National Archives (formerly the Public Records Office) and whether records held there are 'open' or 'closed'.

England and Wales

The Public Record Office Act of 1838 (c94) placed the records of the Chancery in the custody of the Master of the Rolls, and also empowered him to take custody of other public records. The Act decreed that a Public Record Office should be created as soon as possible and empowered the Master of the Rolls to relocate public records, which were then scattered across several buildings. Records of government departments were not covered by the 1838 Act, though many departments did transfer older records to the PRO.

The main provision of the Public Records Act of 1877 was the description of a procedure for the destruction of public records without value. However the formula proscribed by the 1877 Act was unduly complex and, as a result, records which should have been scheduled for destruction were rarely disposed of. The system of disposal enshrined in the 1877 legislation was wholly inadequate for twentieth century records.

In June 1952 the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Master of the Rolls appointed a Committee (known as the Grigg Committee after its Chairman Sir James Grigg) to assess the existing provision for public records. The recommendations of the 1954 report (Cmd 9163) were largely accepted by the Government and resulted in the Public Records Act 1958 (c51) which repealed the 1838-1898 Acts in their entirety. The new Act transferred responsibility for public records and the PRO to the Lord Chancellor, and allocated responsibility for the day-to-day management of the PRO to a Keeper of Public Records. The scope of the Act was extended to include the records of government departments and those of other bodies enacted by Parliament to execute public work. It also provided a general public right of access to records which had been held in the PRO for 50 years; the 50-year closure period was reduced to 30 years by the Public Records Act 1967 (c44). The public's right to access public records was altered again by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (c36) which stipulated that information contained in public records should be open from creation, unless subject to one of the exemptions laid out in the Act.

Northern Ireland

The Public Records Act Northern Ireland 1923 established the Public Record Office for Northern Ireland (PRONI) for the 'reception and preservation of public records appertaining to Northern Ireland '. It set out the responsibilities of public record bodies in Northern Ireland to transfer select records, defined in s.1(2), to PRONI where they would be preserved.


The character of The Public Records (Scotland) Act 1937 is different to the legislation governing records in England & Wales and Northern Ireland. The Act does not define 'public records' or impose any statutory duty to transfer records to the National Archives of Scotland; it merely allows records relating exclusively or mainly to Scotland to be transferred to the Keeper of the Records of Scotland.

Next section >> Proposed National Records and Archives Legislation

Disclaimer: the guidance given in the Paradigm workbook is not legal advice. Legal advice from a solicitor with expertise in the appropriate field should be sought before taking action in relation to specific matters.