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Archives In Brief 77 - Divorce records

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A brief overview of the major sources held by State Records that relate to divorce and the procedures for accessing divorce case papers.

InformationThe Divorce Case Papers Index, 1873-1923 is now complete with over 20,000 entries to search!
Search and order copies online »

Other records may be identified in Archives Investigator. Researchers should consult the Register of Access Directions to confirm the public availability of records. State Records' staff can advise you on the availability of records if they are not listed on the register.

The Divorce case papers are open to public access after 30 years.

Useful definitions

Decree Nisi
initial conditional grant of divorce
Decree Absolute
final grant of divorce

If the Court found grounds for a divorce a decree nisi was granted. If the decree nisi was not rescinded or appealed, the decree became absolute after three to six months.

Regulatory background

The Matrimonial Causes Act, 1873

New South Wales was the last Australian colony to implement divorce legislation with the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1873.

Powers of the Court

The Act allowed for the Supreme Court to hear causes, dissolve marriages, authorise judicial separation, or order the restitution of matrimonial rights. A jury could determine matters of fact. Appeal to a full court was available.

The Court was empowered to order the payment of maintenance, decide the custody of children and award costs.

Grounds for divorce

Initially only men could petition for divorce solely on the grounds of adultery. For women requesting divorce adultery was an additional clause to causes such as bigamy, cruelty or desertion.

The case for adultery required the other party as a co-respondent. Husbands could claim damages from co-respondents and also against the property of their wife.

Amendments to the 1873 Act

There were many amendments to the legislation until the introduction of the Family Law Act 1975 (Commonwealth) established the Federal Family Court and effectively closed the Family Law Division of Supreme Court of NSW.

The major amendments to matrimonial causes legislation from 1881 to 1976 are listed below:

YearAmendment

1881

Wives were granted the right to divorce husbands solely on the grounds of adultery.

1884

Maintenance was provided for wives in cases where husbands had no ability to pay.

1892

Extended the grounds for divorce to include offences such as drunkenness and assault. Empowered the court to try cases on 'circuit'.

1923

Introduction of reciprocal arrangements for enforcing maintenance orders issued in other parts of the Commonwealth, including England.

1959

The Commonwealth Matrimonial Causes Act 1959 provided for the uniformity of divorce laws across Australia by conferring the Federal Jurisdiction in divorce on the states.

1976

The Family Law Act 1975 replaced the Matrimonial Causes Act 1959 and established the Family Law Court of Australia and the process of no-fault divorce.

Online indexes

Divorce Index 1873-1923
This Index was compiled from the Supreme Court Family Law Index. The Index covers the years 1873-1923. There are over 20, 000 entries in this index.
| Search | More information |

Archives Investigator
Divorce case papers 1922-1963 and 1970 are listed in Archives Investigator. Papers from 1976 will be added to Archives Investigator – in the meantime check the Family Law Index on microfiche. Select Simple Search and use the keywords 'divorce' and the surname of the petitioner or respondent.
Search Archives Investigator

Major sources for divorce records at State Records

NRS 13495, Divorce case papers, 1873-1963, 1970 and 1976
The Divorce case papers are the key record series held by State Records relating to divorce. The case papers contain evidence for each particular case including Judicial separations. The information in the divorce case papers varies considerably. Examples of documents in the case papers include:
* Petitions for the dissolution of marriage
* affidavits (sworn statements)
* petitions for maintenance
* marriage certificates
* decrees nisi (not always included)
* decrees absolute (not always included), and
* correspondence.

Family Law (Divorce) Index, 1873-1976
Fiche 6130-6410
Arranged chronologically and then by the first letter of the surname, the index provides the registered number for the divorce case papers. From 1873-1925 they also record year, petitioner, respondent and co-respondent(s) if named. Entries for names Kon-Z in the period 1970-74 appear to be missing.
The Divorce Index, 1873-1923 is available to search online.
Item details of divorce case papers held at State Records, 1976, 1970 and backwards from 1963 are being progressively listed in Archives Investigator.

Where the Divorce case papers are held

1873-1963, 1970 and 1976

Divorce case papers from 1873 to 1963, 1970 and 1976 are held at our Western Sydney Records Centre. Papers 1873-1923 are listed in the Divorce Index. Papers from 1922 held at State Records are listed in Archives Investigator. Papers from 1976 will be added progressively to Archives Investigator. Select Simple Search and use the keywords 'divorce' and the surname of the petitioner or respondent. Listing of the transferred files are available in the reading room.

1964 -1975 (except 1970)

For access to divorce case papers not held by State Records contact the Supreme Court of NSW at:

Supreme Court of New South Wales
GPO Box 3
SYDNEY NSW 2001
Telephone: 1300 679 272
Email: SupremeCourt.Enquiries@courts.nsw.gov.au
Website: www.supremecourt.lawlink.nsw.gov.au

Divorce records after 1976

For records of divorce after 1976 contact the Family Court of Australia.

National Enquiry Centre
Phone: 1300 352 000
Email: enquiries@familylawcourts.gov.au
Fax: 02 8892 8585
Website:http://www.familycourt.gov.au/
Address
Family Law Courts
National Enquiry Centre
GPO Box 9991
PARRAMATTA NSW 2124

How to locate and view Divorce case papers at State Records

A proportion of State archives are fragile and for this reason we may withhold access to the original archive until it has received attention from our Conservation staff. Archives will be checked on a case by case basis as they are requested either in the Reading Room or for a copy order. If an archive requires conservation treatment there will be a delay in the archive being issued and/or copied. Conservation treatments can take up to six months to be completed. You will be notified if there is going to be a delay in an archive being issued and/or copied and if there will be additional copying charges for special format copying.

To find and view Divorce case papers held at State Records follow the steps in the table below.

StepAction

1

Depending on the year of the divorce, check:

a. Online Divorce Index 1873-1922

b. Archives Investigator 1922-1963, 1970

c. Family Law (Divorce) Index, 1873-1976 on microfiche to obtain the:

  • Registered case number, and
  • year

2

Check the Divorce case paper item lists in our reading room and obtain the box/container number.

Tip: Make sure the year from the index matches the year in the item list

3

Complete a request form to view the Divorce case papers.

You can fill in a request form at our Western Sydney Records Centre Reading Room or order the papers before your visit by completing and submitting the preorder form. You will need to include the:

  • Name of petitioner and respondent
  • Registered number
  • Year
  • Box/container number

Tip: A copy of a correctly completed form is shown in the divorce item lists folders in the reading room.

4

Check the retrieval times for Divorce case papers with reading room staff.

Additional sources

Supreme Court: Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Jurisdiction

Below is a select list of records series from the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Jurisdiction. More series are listed in Archives Investigator under Agency No. 1059, Family Law Division of the Supreme Court of NSW.

Process books relating to Matrimonial causes files, 9 Jul 1948-21 May 1973; 3 Oct 1973-23 Jun 1976 [6/20185-20291]
Entries in the process books are arranged chronologically and give the; case file number; names of petitioner, respondent, co-respondent (if applicable) and petitioners and respondents solicitors; dates for the petition, appearance, answer, draft issues, trial, and decree. Some volumes also show the name of the judge and the grounds of the decree.

NRS 13493, Minutes of divorce and matrimonial causes, 1874-79
The volumes show dates of hearing, names of litigants, respective attorneys and co-respondents and in some cases names of witnesses. They contain basic details such as decisions of the court, judgments regarding costs, judgments concerning applications for custody of children and results of applications for decrees nisi to be made absolute.
Preliminary hearings for the determining the date of later hearings are included.

NRS 13499, Copies of letters sent, 14 Jul 1873-21 May 1937
These are letterpress copies of letters sent to solicitors and private individuals. Also includes some copies of decrees absolute.

NRS 13501, Orders for the payment of alimony, 7 May 1908-Mar 1932
These volumes contain orders (letters) authorizing the payment out of the Divorce Court Trust Fund of monies received for alimony, and specifying the persons to whom such monies should be paid.

Court Reporting Office: Transcripts

State Records holds transcripts of divorce cases dating from 1899. Not all divorce cases were transcribed. Transcripts may be arranged annually, or by judge.

Transcripts are listed in Archives Investigator as NRS 2713. Tip: select Advanced search - series.

Judges Notebooks

Judges Notebooks contain notes made by the judge on cases, including divorce cases. The information can vary greatly: some judges write a summary of evidence while others note particular points of interest and some use their own shorthand.

You should consult Archives Investigator for information about judges notebooks.

NSW marriage certificates

Up until the end of 1983 the original marriage certificate was annotated when a marriage was dissolved. Marriage certificates are held by the Registry of Birth, Deaths and Marriages. See Archives in Brief 7 for more information about the Registry.

Newspapers

The State Library of NSW and some large university libraries hold newspapers, which may provide details concerning a particular divorce case.

The Sydney Morning Herald published a list of cases to be heard before the Supreme Court including divorce in its Law Notices. Some published indexes to The Sydney Morning Herald are available.  Newspapers such as the Truth sometimes published salacious details from divorce cases.  Digitised copies of newspapers are also available on the National Library of Australia's Trove website.

© State of New South Wales through the State Records Authority, 2003.
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