Swedish legal records are preserved from many levels in the legal system. The basic court is the Häradsrätten (District court) in rural areas and the basic legal unit was then the Härad (Legal District), which consists of a number of neighboring parishes.
The parish (socken, församling) is always the basic unit in all types of Swedish genealogical research. But what is a parish? A parish is a geographical area, the smallest administrative unit in Sweden. All people in the same parish went to the same church, were registered in the same books, and were buried in the same churchyard.
The District court judge was a university trained law graduate, but he also had the assistance of the nämndemännen (permanent jurymen), which were twelve local men of good repute. It was considered a big honor to be a nämndeman, and in many cases this honor was carried on in several generations of the same family.
The preserved records of the District courts usually start in the 1600s, and they are of many types. But two kinds are of special interest to genealogists, the domböcker (court minutes) and the bouppteckningar (estate inventories, probate).
The first common law of whole Sweden was written in the 1300s, Magnus Eriksson's Landslag, and that remained in use until 1734, when the new common law was instituted. Parts of that law have been in use until recently.
In the domböcker you will find almost everything under the sun, that people could drag each other into court for, minor misdemeanors and capital crimes. Every Death sentence had to be referred to the Court of Appeals (Hovrätten), and they often changed the sentence to prison or fines. Also the District prosecutor and the local forest warden and other officials took their cases to the District court. The records of the District court is also one of the places, where you might, just might, find the father of an illegitimate child.
Here you can read about a court case in Småland in 1809, found in the minutes of the Sunnerbo District Court.
The bouppteckning (probate) had to be done for everyone who died and who possessed anything, as 1/8 % of the residue of the estate should be paid to the poor of the parish. However, it has been figured that only one in four had an estate inventory made, so you never know if you are going to find one. They are also important as they list all the heirs of the deceased, and if the children were minors, the next of kin that should guard their interests in the estate. If it was a man who died, the children's paternal uncle or somebody on that side of the family should be present, and if it was a woman, someone from her side of the family, and this can of course give important clues, if you do not know the origins of the deceased person.
Here you can read an example of how the bouppteckning helped to solve an old problem.
Where are these records?
They are kept in the Provincial archives in Sweden, and are also available on microfilm. The Mormon Family History Centers around the world have these microfilms in their catalog.
To find out which Legal District a parish belongs to, you must consult a gazetteer like Rosenberg's Statistiskt-Geografiskt Handlexikon, published originally in 1888, reprint 1993, or the yearly Rikets indelningar, published by the Central Bureau of Statistics. The boundaries of the Legal Districts (härader) have sometimes changed during the centuries, but usually not very much.
Written by Elisabeth Thorsell
Professional genealogist, lecturer and writer