A Brief Summary of the Courts' History

Canada's First
Truly Independent Courts



"The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia and Its Judges 1754-1978"
Nova Scotia Barrister's Society

In 1713, Nova Scotia was ceded to the British Crown. In 1721, "a General Court or Court of Judicature" was established at Annapolis Royal, consisting of the Governor and his Council. This court continued to exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction until the establishment of a regular court in 1749 after the founding of Halifax.

A committee of the Council in 1749 reported that the judicial system of Virginia was the "most proper to be observed in the Province." Two courts were established:

The General Court, composed of the Governor and Council -had civil, criminal, and exchequer jurisdiction as well as the authority to hear appeals from the County Court.

A County Court, composed of five Justices of the Peace (sitting monthly) had jurisdiction across the whole province over common law matters except those punishable by death or outlawry. The name of this court was changed in 1752 to the "Inferior Court of Common Pleas".

1754: The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia is established.
The Hon. Jonathan Belcher is appointed Chief Justice of Nova Scotia.
The General Court is abolished.
A new judiciary is put in its place (for some years, the Chief Justice is the only judge).
1764: Two laymen are appointed as Assistant Judges of the Court
1774: The first Circuits are established for the Supreme Court.
Sittings are held regularly in Halifax and twice a year in Horton (King's), Annapolis, and Cumberland.
1794: The Counties of Sydney, Lunenburg, Queen's, and Shelburne are added as circuits.
1809: The Supreme Court Act stipulates that judges must have legal training.
1810: A fourth judge is added to the Supreme Court.
1820: The County of Cape Breton is added to the Supreme Court circuit.
1834: A single judge is now allowed to preside and determine all issues in the Supreme Court (instead of two judges).
1841: The Inferior Court of Common Pleas is abolished and its jurisdiction is transferred to the Supreme Court.
One more judge (the Hon. Thomas C. Haliburton) is added making a total of five.
The circuit is expanded to include 16 other locations outside of Halifax.
1870: Two more judges are added making seven (no other judges are added until 1969).
1875: The County Courts of Nova Scotia are established - a separate court for each of the seven districts.
1889: The new Federal Speedy Trials Act allows most offences – except the most serious, such as murder – to be heard without a jury in County Court, diverting many criminal cases from the Supreme Court.
1923: The Attorney General puts forward legislation to overhaul the court system including abolishing grand juries and creating a separate Court of Appeal, but none of these initiatives are implemented.
1960: Women are granted the right to serve on juries.
1966: Separate Trial and Appeal divisions of the Supreme Court are created.
The Chief Justice of the Appeal Division assumes the position of Chief Justice of Nova Scotia.
1984: Nova Scotia becomes the last province to abolish the grand jury, a group of citizens empaneled at the pre-trial stage to review allegations in criminal cases.
1992: The County and Supreme Courts are merged.
The Appeal Division of the Supreme Court is reconstituted as the Court of Appeal.
1999: The Family Division of the Supreme Court, with eight judges, is established to deal with family law cases in the Halifax and Sydney areas.
To learn about other milestones in the history of the Nova Scotia Courts,
go to the interactive
section of this website.
For information on a specific court, as it is constituted and operated today,
go to the "Level Or Type Of Court" dropdown menu at the top of this page