Oral histories of the legal system

Gold statue of Lady Justice against a bright blue sky, holding a sword in one hand, a set of scales in the other with a blindfold.

We hold collections of oral history interviews with those involved in the legal and criminal justice system.

About the collection

The British Library holds a number of collections that encompass interviews with a wide range of those involved in the legal and criminal justice system including the police, lawyers, barristers and judges.

What is available online?

Legal Lives, a National Life Stories project, includes interviews with lawyers, solicitors, barristers and other members of the legal profession in Britain. Interviews available online include Lady Hale (the first female Law Lord), Leonard HoffmanBaroness Helena Kennedy QC and Sir Sydney Kentridge QC.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Oral histories with members of the Legal Professions

Legal Lives, a National Life Stories project, includes interviews with lawyers, solicitors, barristers and other members of the legal profession in Britain. Interviewees include Lord Bridge and Peter Goldsmith (former Attorney General of England and Wales), Lady Hale (the first female Law Lord) and barrister Sir Sydney Kentridge QC.

Crown Court Clerks Life Story Interviews is a collaborative doctoral research project with National Life Stories and the London School of Economics (LSE) Legal Biography Project.  PhD student Dr Dvora Liberman recorded the 21 interviews for the project ‘Exploring the social world of Crown Court clerks from the 1970s onwards’ and created an archive of life stories of Crown Court clerks as the key part of her research. Twenty of the interviews are available in the Library reading Rooms.

An interview with Joel Joffe, Labour peer in the House of Lords and defence lawyer for Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Trial of 1963-64, is included in the National Life Stories collection Pioneers in Charity and Social Welfare. The British Library also hold recordings from the Rivonia Trial which comprise the opening of the defence case by Defence Counsel Bram Fischer, followed by interjections from Justice Quartus de Wet and Prosecutor Percy Yutar, then a three-hour speech by Accused Number One, Nelson Mandela. 

The Fawcett Collection, a National Life Stories collection of recordings funded by the Fawcett Society and the Friends of the Fawcett Library, focuses on the lives of pioneering career women, each of whom made their mark in traditionally male-dominated areas such as politics, the law and medicine. Interviews relating to the law include a recording with Jean Graham Hall, arbitrator and lawyer.

The NSA: General collection includes recordings with prominent individuals who do not easily fit within a particular project. Interviewees relating to law include Lord Hartley Shawcross, the chief British prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal.

Oral Histories of the Police

The Barbara Weinberger police interviews were conducted for a project entitled `The golden years of policing, 1930s-1960s' which subsequently became a book The Best Police in the World: An Oral History of English Policing from the 1930s to the 1960s (Scholar Press, 1995). Read a Sound and Moving Image blog about the cataloguing process by intern Fiona Laird (2014).

Millennium Memory Bank. In the last year of the 20th century all BBC local radio stations across England, together with Radio Scotland, Radio Ulster, Radio Wales and Radio Cymru, joined forces with the British Library Sound Archive to create a powerful record of the century just ending through the voices of thousands of people from all walks of life. This joint BBC and British Library project, entitled 'The Century Speaks: Millennium Oral History Project' collected over 6,000 interviews. 6,000 people of all ages and backgrounds told us how they and their communities have changed during this period and in so doing they helped us to create a sound map of the century. Memories have been gathered under sixteen headings, one of which was ‘Crime and the Law’.

Related collection guides

Subjects relating to law and the legal system are an element in many life story recordings; see the collection guides for major national oral history projects and surveys, politics and government, social policy and social movements and sexuality, sexual health and prostitution

Further information

See the collection guide to Oral History and webpages for National Life Stories: the oral history charitable trust based at the British Library.

Search the online Sound and Moving Image catalogue to retrieve detailed information for every oral history interview.  For more information on how to search the catalogue and listen to oral history recordings see our 'How to' guide. 

Contact us

Oral History
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom