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." As such, 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 over common law matters across the whole province, except for those punishable by death or outlawry. The name of this court was changed in 1752 to the "Inferior Court of Common Pleas".
Three of Canada's key principles of democracy were first established here in Nova Scotia: a truly independent court, an elected government and freedom of the press. The country's first independent court was established in Nova Scotia in 1754 under The Hon. Jonathan Belcher, the Chief Justice and only judge at the time. Four years later, in 1758, Canada's first elected assembly of representatives of the people was established. In 1835, freedom of the press was first legally recognized by a Canadian Court — the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia — in the famous Joseph Howe trial.
Click on the headings below for more detailed information on the Courts' history.
The Nova Scotia Supreme Court is the first superior court to apply the common law within the boundaries of what is now Canada. The common law of Britain came to the province after the French ceded mainland Nova Scotia to the British in 1713, under the Treaty of Utrecht. In 1721, in response to “the dayly cry ... for Justice” from the inhabitants, the British established a General Court at the capital, Annapolis Royal. Based on a model used in Virginia, the court consisted of the governor and members of his council. This court continued to hear all civil and criminal cases until the founding of Halifax in 1749.
Colonel Edward Cornwallis who became governor when Halifax was established, was authorized to create laws “as near as may be agreeable” to those of Britain. A two-tier court system was put in place, with the General Court retained to hear all criminal cases. It also heard appeals of the decisions of the lower court in civil disputes involving more than £300. Concerns about the legitimacy of legal decisions made by laymen, coupled with complaints that judges of the lower court were applying New England law, prompted the British authorities to appoint a lawyer to serve as chief justice. Jonathan Belcher, a New Englander who had practiced law in England and Ireland, was sworn in as chief justice of the newly established Supreme Court on October 21, 1754.
When Nova Scotia was granted an elected assembly in 1758, one of the first acts passed confirmed all “sentences, verdicts and judgments” of the Supreme Court. A growing caseload prompted the appointment of two laymen, Charles Morris and John Collier, as assistant judges in 1764, but until 1773 they could only hear cases in tandem with the chief justice. The court began sitting once or twice a year in communities outside Halifax in 1774, and this circuit system was extended to the entire province by 1851.
In the late 1780s, a controversy dubbed “The Judges’ Affair” rocked the court. British officials had difficulty finding a permanent replacement for Belcher, who died in 1776. The senior assistant judge, Isaac Deschamps, was in charge for several years despite his lack of formal legal training. Lawyers among the Loyalist refugees newly arrived from the American colonies launched a campaign to impeach Deschamps and the other assistant judge, James Brenton, accusing them of incompetence and bias. The Assembly investigated but Lieutenant-Governor John Parr and his council cleared both judges and dismissed the allegations as “groundless and scandalous.” The complaints resurfaced in 1790 and the Assembly voted to impeach Deschamps and Brenton for “high crimes and misdemeanours.” The Privy Council of the British government reviewed the allegations and, in a 1792 report, exonerated both judges and condemned their detractors. Since 1809, however, all judges of the Supreme Court have been required to have practiced law for at least ten years.
The court grew as the province’s population increased. A fourth judge was added in 1810 and six years later an associate judge was appointed to preside over cases outside Halifax. In 1841 the province’s lower court, the Inferior Court of Common Pleas, was abolished and the Supreme Court assumed jurisdiction over most criminal and civil cases, leaving minor offences and civil disputes in the hands of local justices of the peace.
In 1848, Nova Scotia became the first province granted responsible government – a form of parliamentary government requiring the party in power to have the confidence of a majority of the elected members of the Assembly. Judicial reforms including granting independence to judges of the Supreme Court, who could only be removed from office through a vote of both the Assembly and the Legislative Council.
Upon Confederation in 1867, the federal government assumed the power to appoint Supreme Court judges. Two judges were added to the court in 1870, bringing the total to seven. A County Court was established in 1874 to ease the caseload of the Supreme Court – County Court judges in seven districts heard cases without juries, improving access to justice and allowing for speedier trials. In 1875, the Supreme Court of Canada was created to hear appeals of rulings of superior courts in Nova Scotia and other provinces.
Proposals for court reform surfaced in the 1920s, when Attorney General Walter J. O’Hearn put forward legislation to abolish grand juries and create a separate court of appeal. No action was taken, however, and the grand jury – a group of citizens empaneled to review allegations in criminal cases – persisted in Nova Scotia until 1984, long after it had been abolished in the rest of Canada. The Supreme Court continued to sit as a group to consider appeals until the creation of distinct Trial and Appeal divisions in 1966.
The court recorded a series of firsts beginning in the mid-1960s. Vincent Pottier became the first Acadian named to Supreme Court in 1965; J. Louis Dubinsky, the first member of the Jewish community to serve on the court, was appointed two years later; and Justice Constance Glube – the first woman appointed to the court, in 1977 – was promoted to chief justice of the Trial Division in 1982, becoming the first woman to serve as chief of a Canadian superior court.
During the 1980s, however, the Supreme Court itself was put on trial. Federal Justice Minister Jean Chretien referred the case of Mi’kmaq teenager Donald Marshall, Jr., who served 11 years in prison for a 1971 murder in Sydney, to the Appeal Division for review. The court acquitted Marshall but insisted any miscarriage of justice was “more apparent than real” despite growing evidence of misconduct by police and prosecutors. The Nova Scotia government established a royal commission, headed by three out-of-province judges, to investigate the case and the province’s justice system. The commission’s 1990 report condemned systemic racism and political influence in the province’s justice system. Reforms have included giving police the power to decide whether to file criminal charges and the creation of the only Canadian prosecution agency that operates independently of government. The Canadian Judicial Council investigated the five Appeal Division judges who said Marshall was to blame for his wrongful conviction and, while critical of their conduct, the council found no grounds to justify their removal.
More court reforms were undertaken in the 1990s. On the recommendation of the Nova Scotia Court Structure Task Force, the County and Supreme courts were merged to create a bench of 25 judges at the trial level. The Appeal Division was reconstituted as the Court of Appeal, with eight judges. In 1999 a Family Division of the court, with eight judges, was established to deal with divorces and other family law cases in the Halifax and Sydney areas. There are plans to extend its jurisdiction to all parts of the province, replacing the Family Court that still sits in other centres.
The Supreme Court has emerged as a leader in Canada in judicial education and accountability to the public. It spearheaded a program that enables lawyers to provide confidential assessments of the performance of its judges, and created a central administrative office that serves all courts in the province – the first of its kind in Canada. It was one of the first courts to establish a media liaison committee, giving judges and journalists a forum to resolve disputes over court access and problems arising from media coverage. The province’s guidelines for media access and an Internet-based system for notifying the media of applications for publication bans have become models for other provinces. Nova Scotia is also a leader in the creation of restorative justice programs that impose alternative forms of punishment and seek to reconcile offenders and their victims.
As of 2004 the Court of Appeal consisted of the Chief Justice of Nova Scotia (who is also the Chief Justice of the Court of Appeal) and seven other judges. Semi-retired (supernumerary) judges may also form part of the court at any given time. The Supreme Court comprised a chief justice, an associate chief justice and twenty-one judges. There were also six supernumerary or semi-retired judges.
Sources: Barry Cahill and Jim Phillips, “The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia: Origins to Confederation,” and Philip Girard, “The Nova Scotia Supreme Court: Confederation to the 21 st Century,” in Girard, Phillips and Cahill, eds., The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia 1754-2004: From Imperial Bastion to Provincial Oracle (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004); The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia and Its Judges: 1754-1978 (Halifax: Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, 1978).
1721 – In response to “the dayly cry ... for Justice” from the inhabitants of Annapolis Royal, the British established a court based on a model used in Virginia. The governor and his Council presided over criminal cases and civil disputes.
1749 – Halifax founded as the new Nova Scotia capital. Colonial administrators authorized the governor, Col. Edward Cornwallis, to create laws “as near as may be agreeable” to those of Britain. A two-tier court system was put in place, with the General Court, made up of the governor and the Council, as the highest court in the colony. The General Court had the power to hear all criminal cases but none of its members had legal training. It also heard appeals of the decisions of the lower court, the Inferior Court of Common Pleas, in disputes involving more than £ 300.
1754 – Concerns about the legitimacy of legal decisions made by laymen, coupled with complaints that justices of the lower court were applying New England law, led to demands for the appointment of a trained lawyer to serve as chief justice. Jonathan Belcher was sworn in as chief justice of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court on Oct. 21. The court’s jurisdiction spanned the entire colony, which grew to include Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick after the Treaty of Paris ended the war with France in 1763.
1758 – Nova Scotia was granted an elected assembly. One of the first laws passed confirmed all “sentences, verdicts and judgments” of the Supreme Court.
1764 – Two laymen, Charles Morris and John Collier, appointed as assistant judges, but they were restricted to hearing cases only with the assistance of the chief justice.
1769 – Prince Edward Island made a separate colony.
1773 – Assistant judges were authorized to hear cases without the chief justice.
1774 – An influx of settlers after 1759 brought demands for the Supreme Court to hear cases Supreme Court Circuit was created with the Supreme Court Circuit Act of 1774outside Halifax. The Supreme Court Circuit Act of 1774 provided that a judge would travel twice a year to Annapolis, Kings and Cumberland counties to hold court. The circuit system was extended as the colony grew, with sittings once or twice a year in all counties by 1851.
1784 – New Brunswick and Cape Breton established as separate colonies, each with its own supreme court.
1787 – Lawyers among the Loyalist refugees from the American colonies led a campaign to impeach assistant judges Isaac Deschamps and James Brenton, accusing them of incompetence and bias. The Assembly conducted and investigation but the Council cleared both judges and dismissed the allegations as “groundless and scandalous.”
1790 – The so-called “Judges Affair” was revived. The Assembly passed seven articles of impeachment accusing Deschamps and Brenton of “high crimes and misdemeanours” and demanded their dismissal. The Privy Council of the British government reviewed the allegations and, in a 1792 report, cleared both judges and condemned the actions of their detractors.
1809 – The Supreme Court Act stipulated that judges must have legal training. Candidates were required to have been lawyers for at least ten years and to have practiced law for at least five years immediately before their appointment.
1810 – A fourth judge added to the Supreme Court.
1816 – The post of associate circuit judge was created to deal with the expanded circuits and the growing number of cases outside Halifax, bringing the court to five judges.
1820 – Cape Breton annexed to Nova Scotia and becomes part of the Supreme Court circuit.
1825 – Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society founded, only the second professional organization for lawyers in British North America.
1830 – Richard John Uniacke Jr., acquitted of murder in 1819 after killing an opponent in a duel, became the first Nova Scotia-born judge of the Supreme Court.
1841 – Abolition of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas left the Supreme Court with jurisdiction to hear most criminal and civil cases, other than minor offences and disputes dealt with by local justices of the peace.
1848 – The granting of responsible government (a system requiring cabinet ministers to have the confidence of a majority of the assembly) also brought reform of the judiciary. The Nova Scotia government was given the power to appoint the chief justice and all future Supreme Court judges were granted independence. Judges served “during good behavior” and could only be removed from office through a vote of both houses of the legislature, the Assembly and the Legislative Council.
1855 – Court of Chancery, which specialized in foreclosures and applied legal concepts known as equitable principles, was abolished. The Supreme Court assumed jurisdiction over legal actions based on equity as well as the common law.
1855 – Volume One of the Nova Scotia Reports published, making the Court’s precedents widely available to lawyers. The initial volume was a collection of judgments handed down from 1834 to 1851.
1860 – The Supreme Court sat for the first time in the newly built Halifax County courthouse on Spring Garden Road.
1863 – The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain became the final court of appeal for Nova Scotia civil cases. The highest appeal court within Nova Scotia continued to be the Supreme Court sitting in banco – panels of judges reviewing decisions made by their colleagues at the trial stage.
1867 – Nova Scotia one of four colonies to merge at Confederation.
1870 – Two judges added to the court, bringing the total to seven.
1875 – The Supreme Court of Canada created to hear appeals of rulings of Nova Scotia Supreme Old Supreme Court of Canada - 1876, courtesy of the Supreme Court of Canada)Court and other provincial superior courts, with a final appeal still possible to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The Exchequer Court of Canada (now the Federal Court) also established.
1877 – The County Court, established in 1874 to ease the caseload of the Supreme Court, begins hearing cases, The province is divided into seven districts, each with a County Court judge to hear cases without juries, improving access to justice and providing speedier trials.
1883 – Dalhousie Law School founded in Halifax, the oldest university-affiliated law school in the Commonwealth.
1889 – Federal Speedy Trials Act allows most offences – except the most serious, such as murder – to be heard without a jury in County Court, diverting more criminal cases from the Supreme Court.
1890 – The court established a rule that the judge who presided at trial could not take part in the appeal without the agreement of a majority of the other judges.
1916 – Joseph Chisholm became the first graduate of Dalhousie Law School to be appointed to the court. He was appointed chief justice in 1931.
1918 – Frances Fish admitted to the Nova Scotia bar, becoming the first woman entitled to practice law in the province.
1923 – Attorney General W.J. O’Hearn put forward legislation to overhaul the court system, abolish grand juries and create a separate court of appeal, but none of the initiatives were implemented.
1929 – With economic conditions worsening on the eve of the Depression, publication of the Nova Scotia Reports was suspended. Nova Scotia case law continued to be recorded in a new series of reports that included judgments of courts in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
1937 – Everett Farmer hanged in Shelburne for murder, the last person executed in Nova Scotia.
1960 – Women granted the right to serve on juries.
1961 – The mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court judges was set at 75
1965 – Vincent Pottier promoted from the County Court to become the first Acadian to serve on the Supreme Court.
1966 – Creation of separate Trial and Appeal divisions, with one judge added to each court. The chief justice of the Appeal Division assumed the position of chief justice of Nova Scotia.
1967 – J. Louis Dubinsky became the first member of the Jewish community appointed to the Supreme Court.
1969 – Nova Scotia Reports resumed publication.
1971 – The Law Courts building opened on the Halifax waterfront, accommodating judges of the Trial and Appeal divisions and the County Court.
1972 – County Court judges were made local judges of the Supreme Court, enabling them to handle court business during the months when Supreme Court judges were not in the area on circuit.
1980 – Small Claims Court created to hear civil disputes involving modest amounts of money.
1982 – Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau promoted Justice Constance Glube to chief justice of the Trial Division, making her the first woman to serve as chief justice of a Canadian superior court.
1983 – Federal Justice Minister Jean Chretien refers the wrongful conviction of Mi’kmaq teenager Donald Marshall Jr., who served 11 years in prison for a 1971 murder in Sydney, to the Appeal Division for review. The court acquits Marshall and insists any miscarriage of justice is “more apparent than real” despite growing evidence of misconduct by police and prosecutors. The Nova Scotia government later establishes a royal commission to investigate the case and the province’s justice system.
1983 – Additional appointments between 1973 and 1983 brought the Supreme Court to a roster of 14 judges.
1984 – Nova Scotia became the last province to abolish the grand jury, a group of citizens empaneled at the pre-trial stage to review allegations in criminal cases.
1990 – Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall Jr. Prosecution, headed by three out-of-province judges, released a report condemning systemic racism and political influence in the Nova Scotia justice system. Reforms included giving police the power to decide whether to file criminal charges and the creation of the only Canadian prosecution agency that operates independently of government. At the request of the Nova Scotia government, the Canadian Judicial Council investigated the five Appeal Division judges who said Marshall was to blame for his wrongful conviction and, while critical of their conduct, the council found no grounds to justify their removal.
1992 – On the recommendation of the Nova Scotia Court Structure Task Force, chaired by former Dal Law School dean William Charles, the County and Supreme courts were merged to create a bench of 25 judges at the trial level. The province was divided into four judicial districts, with two Supreme Court judges residing in each one and Halifax-based judges continuing to preside over cases when on circuit. The Appeal Division was reconstituted as the Court of Appeal with eight judges.
1998 – Glube elevated to chief justice of Nova Scotia, only the second woman to be appointed chief justice in Canada.
1999 – The Supreme Court of Canada overturned the Nova Scotia courts in the case of R. v. Marshall, finding the Mi’kmaq have a right, under treaties signed in the mid-1700s, to fish to make a modest living. The ruling, which led to confrontations between licenced fishermen and natives seeking to enter the industry, came after Donald Marshall Jr. (whose wrongful conviction led to the Marshall commission) was charged with catching eels out of season.
1999 – Family Division of the court, with eight judges, established to deal with family law cases in the Halifax and Sydney areas.
Halifax was the focus for the Supreme Court in its early years, but as the population grew so did demands for trials to be held in outlying communities. In 1774 the court began holding sessions twice a year in Annapolis, Kings and Cumberland counties, and these “circuit” sittings were extended to the entire province by 1851. In newer settlements, court was sometimes held in shops, private homes, and even in the local tavern. The court’s stature and civic pride demanded better, and the nineteenth century witnessed a courthouse building boom across the province.
The result was a collection of impressive buildings, many of them still standing – monuments to the pursuit of justice. Towns vied to become the site of the county courthouse and enjoy the status and economic spinoffs they provided as litigants and witnesses converged for court business. Courtrooms echoed with cases of all kinds, from lurid murders to mundane disputes over unpaid bills. The courthouse was often the focus of community events, hosting public meetings, political rallies and serving as an enlistment centre in wartime. Many early courthouses were housed in the same building as the county jail, and it was – and remains – common for the Supreme Court to share facilities with other courts. In many areas the Province has built larger, more secure justice centres, a trend that will continue as age, building codes and increasing caseloads make some older courthouses obsolete. Several of these landmarks have already found second careers as museums.
Annapolis County – Annapolis Royal, 1837
As the birthplace of Canada’s common law system of justice, it is fitting that Annapolis Royal has a courthouse described as “expensive and magnificent” and “probably the best in the province” shortly after its completion in 1837. Adjacent to Fort Anne, it replaced a courthouse dating from 1793 that burned in 1836. The first floor, built of granite blocks, houses the jail; the stuccoed second storey, accessed via two flights of stairs meeting at the central entrance door, contains offices and the Supreme Court’s oak-paneled courtroom. Four columns frame the front door and the hipped roof is topped with a cupola added during renovations in the 1920s. It is the oldest courthouse in the province that remains in use.
Antigonish County – Antigonish, 1855
With its imposing Greek Revival columns and tall windows, the Antigonish courthouse stands as a monument to the town’s mid-nineteenth century pride and prosperity. It was too grand for some people’s tastes – a number of residents signed a petition to the legislature that complained of the “considerable sum of money” spent on the building. While the date of construction is uncertain, descendants of its builder – Antigonish contractor Alexander McDonald, known locally as “Sandy the Carpenter” – suggest it was completed in 1855. The county jail, built of stone, is attached to the rear of the building. The courthouse survived a serious fire in the 1940s and continues to be the venue for the area’s Supreme Court cases.
Argyle (District) – Tusket, 1805
The oldest surviving courthouse in Canada, Tusket’s venerable courthouse was completed in 1805 to serve an area that was in the midst of an economic boom fueled by shipbuilding, fishing and milling. A bell tower at one end of its gabled roof, directly above the main entrance, gives the building the look of a church and belies its dual role as a courthouse and jail. The building was doubled in length in 1833 and was lengthened again in 1870, but otherwise its facade has undergone few changes in two centuries.
The most famous trial held at the courthouse took place in 1922 – Omar P. Roberts was convicted of killing his housekeeper and became the last man hanged for murder in Yarmouth County. The building was used for court sessions and housed the offices of the Municipality of Argyle until 1976. Through the efforts of three local residents, the courthouse was restored and reopened in 1983 as a museum and archives.
Barrington (District) – Barrington, 1843
Barrington’s New England settlers built this courthouse as the community’s “town house” – the site of the local jail as well as a venue for town meetings and elections. When the District of Barrington was established as a separate municipal unit in 1854, the building became its courthouse. The second floor housed the courtroom, judge’s chambers, jury room and robing rooms for lawyers. It is the province’s third oldest surviving courthouse, but renovations and additions over the years have muted its formal Georgian symmetry.
Cape Breton County – Sydney
As Cape Breton’s largest urban centre, Sydney has long been the focus for court business on the island. The city’s earliest courthouse was built in 1786 and stood on North Charlotte Street. It was replaced in 1868 by a new structure on DesBarres Street. It, in turn, was replaced by a new courthouse in 1901, built near the site of the original courthouse and designed by the Hopson Brothers. This courthouse burned in 1959 and a modern, multi-storey courthouse to serve Cape Breton County was opened in 1962 on Crescent Street, overlooking Wentworth Park. Poor indoor air quality forced the closure of the courthouse in the 1990s, but it was later renovated, rechristened Silicon Island and is now home to high-tech businesses. The county’s courts are now housed in the Harbour Place development on Charlotte Street.
Colchester County – Truro, 1904
A building “more in harmony with the wealth, intelligence and public spirit of Colchester.” That was the goal of the citizens of the county and the bustling railway and factory town of Truro when they set out to build a new courthouse at the dawn of the twentieth century. By then the town’s courthouse was approaching its sixtieth year and was considered a “rather disreputable structure,” its Greek-inspired columns defaced with graffiti and its interior “shabby and not at all imposing.”
In 1903 a leading architect of the day, James Dumaresq of Halifax, was commissioned to design a new courthouse, a massive brick building trimmed in sandstone. Four stone pillars, two storeys in height, frame the main entrance to the structure, which also houses the county council chambers. A four-storey turret graces one side of the building, and a mix of windows topped with arches and keystones add interest to the facade. The large courtroom is crowned with a coved ceiling that frames a skylight of decorative leaded glass, allowing natural light to flood in. When completed in 1904, the warden of Colchester declared the building “second to none in the Province.” An addition was added in 1972 and the building remains in use by the court.
Cumberland County – Amherst, 1889
Built of red sandstone quarried within the town limits, this substantial courthouse befitted Amherst’s position as a major manufacturing centre when it was built in 1889. An arched central entrance and scalloped carvings above the tall windows combine to create an impressive facade. The second-floor courtroom is reached using a pair of elaborately carved staircases. An addition was added to the rear of the building in 1960s to provide more office space. It is the fourth courthouse to serve this county, replacing a wooden structure on the same site that burned down in 1887. It borders on a park formerly know as Court Square but renamed Victoria Square in 1887 – the year the previous courthouse was destroyed – to mark Queen Victoria’s fiftieth year on the throne.
Digby County – Digby, 1910
The fire that destroyed the Annapolis Royal courthouse in 1836 provided an opportunity for the residents of western Annapolis County to demand their own municipality – with its own courthouse and registry offices. Digby County was duly established in 1837 and the town of Digby was chosen over Weymouth, a port further to the west, as the site of the courthouse. The original Georgian-style structure was considered inadequate by the turn of the century and a larger brick structure was erected on the same site and completed in 1910. It features castle-like rounded turrets, topped with a conical roof, at each corner. Prominent architect Leslie Fairn, fresh from designing the King’s County courthouse in Kentville, drew up the plans. The building also housed the county council chambers and the courtroom features a two-tier public gallery and the scales of justice carved into a wood panel above the judge’s bench.
Guysborough County – Guysborough, 1843
Even though it dates to 1843, the Guysborough courthouse is the third to serve a county founded by disbanded British soldiers after the American Revolution. The first courthouse, which also housed the jail, was built in 1790 and a replacement was completed in 1825. It was replaced, in turn, by a simple, one-storey courthouse with a gabled roof and windows featuring Gothic arches reminiscent of a church. A separate jail building was erected next door. When court was not in session, the building hosted municipal council meetings and rallies and housed exhibits for agricultural fairs held on its grounds. Court sittings moved to the town’s new municipal building in 1973 and the courthouse is now a museum.
Halifax County – Halifax, 1860
The Supreme Court convened for the first time in 1754 in a building at the corner of Argyle and Buckingham Streets, now the site of the Scotia Square office towers. After this building burned down in July 1789, court was held for a time in a large room at the Golden Ball tavern. Space was then leased from a local merchant – a “low, dark” upstairs room in a warehouse located on the site now occupied by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. A new County Courthouse was built for the lower courts about 1810, adjacent to the city’s open-air market on George Street, but the Supreme Court was destined for grander surroundings. Upon the completion in 1818 of Province House, the fine sandstone building on Hollis Street that houses the Legislature and its offices, the Supreme Court moved into the second-floor chamber now used as the Legislative Library.
By the 1850s a decision was made to consolidate all the courts under one roof. After fires razed many downtown buildings during that decade, officials abandoned plans for a wooden structure in favour of a more fireproof one made of stone, to protect the legal records it would house. A Toronto-based architect, William Thomas, was retained and created a palatial structure in sandstone, replete with carvings of the faces of snarling lions and stern, bearded men. A temple-like projection from the facade dwarfs the entrance doors and those who enter – a fitting image to convey the power and majesty of the courts. After its completion in 1860, a city directory gushed that the building “cannot be surpassed for architectural beauty by any city of the same size on the continent of America.”
Located near the foot of Spring Garden Road, the building initially housed two courtrooms. An addition to the back in the 1880s added a third. Matching wings were erected on either end of the building in 1908 and 1930 to add additional courtroom and office space. The courthouse suffered $19,000 in damage in the 1917 Halifax Explosion, even though it was far removed from the site of the blast. Its courtrooms have been described as the “most flamboyantly decorated” of any in the province, rich in fine woodwork and plaster details. One of the courtrooms even featured an elevator that could ferry prisoners directly into the courtroom from the cells below, but it was removed in the 1930s after is malfunctioned and left a prisoner trapped between floors.
After a modern Law Courts complex for Halifax County was built on the waterfront in 1971, the old courthouse (designated a national historic site in 1969) was transformed into a provincial government library. The seven-storey Law Courts provided eleven courtrooms – enough for the Supreme Court and its newly created Appeal Division, as well as the County and Provincial courts. By the 1980s, however, more judges and support staff were needed to deal with an increasing caseload and the building proved too small to accommodate all levels of court. The Provincial Court returned to the refurbished Spring Garden Road courthouse in 1985.
Hants County – Windsor 1950
Hants County is divided into two smaller municipalities, East and West Hants. The largest town in West Hants, Windsor, emerged as an important commercial and railway centre and was home to King’s College, the province’s first institution of higher learning, until it was relocated to Halifax in the 1920s after a disastrous fire. Windsor was among the first communities outside Halifax to host Supreme Court sittings after the circuit system was established in 1774.
A courthouse was built on the present-day site of Christ Church in 1804, and was followed by a succession of court buildings at the corner of King and Victoria streets. The courthouse erected in 1897 was an elegant, two-storey brick building, with a hipped roof and large domed windows. It burned in December 1946 and the current courthouse was built at the same corner in 1950, with chief Justice J.L. Ilsley laying the cornerstone. Charles Killinbeck of Kentville produced the functional design, which is far less ornate than its predecessor, and the building also housed the county jail and its 17 cells. Court sittings have been transferred to the regional justice centre in Kentville.
East Hants had its own courthouse as early as the 1860s. It was built in Gore, a small farming community where antimony – a metal used to strengthen lead – was mined for export to Wales from the 1880s until 1917. The courthouse stood for 90 years on a site known locally as ‘Judgment Hill,’ but it was no longer in use for court sessions when it was destroyed by fire in 1956.
Inverness County – Port Hood 1936
In 1824, shortly after Cape Breton was annexed to mainland Nova Scotia, the island was divided into judicial districts and Port Hood, on the western coast, was proclaimed the site where the “Courts of Common Pleas and Session of the Peace shall hereinafter be held.” With its large harbour and thriving fishing industry, Port Hood was a natural choice as shiretown (the seat of local government) when Inverness County was established in 1837.
The community has had a succession of courthouses, all located on the aptly named Court House Square. The first was a small stone structure built sometime after 1825. It was replaced in 1872 by a building that boasted a large courtroom with galleries ringing the rear and side walls, giving spectators prime seats for viewing the proceedings. This courthouse was destroyed by fire in December 1935, along with many of the court records it contained. The current courthouse was completed in 1936 and renovated in the 1940s. A major extension was added to the north end of the building in 1967 to provide additional office space.
King’s County – Kentville, 1903
Kentville replaced Wolfville as the administrative centre for King’s County in the 1780s, and a combination courthouse and jail was built in 1829. It was destroyed by fire 20 year later but the replacement courthouse was considered “scandalously inefficient” and “an eyesore to the community” by the turn of the century. A leading Maritime architect, Leslie A. Fairn, was commissioned to design a new courthouse on Cornwallis Street in 1903.
Built of brick and topped with a cupola and weather vane, the building housed county offices on the ground floor and the Supreme Court chamber on the floor above. The courtroom is ornate, with stained walnut paneling and the scales of justice carved in wood above the judge’s bench – reputedly the work of a local inmate. According to one observer, major trials would prompt men from all over the county to converge on Kentville and “all day remain spell-bound in the stifling courtroom, listening to the evidence as the various witnesses were called.” A modern Law Courts, part of a new municipal building, opened on the same street in 1980 and the old courthouse is now the King’s Historical Society Museum.
Lunenburg County – Lunenburg, 1892; Bridgewater, 1893
Courthouses and municipal offices bring jobs, economic spinoffs and prestige to their host communities. Towns would sometimes vie for the honour of being the “shiretown” or county seat, and in Lunenburg County this rivalry led to the construction of two courthouses. Lunenburg, founded in 1754 and only the second Nova Scotia settlement established under British rule, erected a courthouse in 1775. When a replacement was needed in the late 1800s officials in the bustling lumber town of Bridgewater also claimed the right to host the new courthouse. After three years of debate and legal actions, courthouses were built in both communities.
The Lunenburg courthouse, completed first in 1892, is a towering building of brick and stone designed in the Second Empire style that features a mansard roof and entrances that project from the centre of the facade. Bridgewater followed a year later with large wooden structure in the same architectural style, with a central tower rising over the main entrance. Both buildings provided courtrooms, judge’s chambers and jury rooms. The county council, saddled with the expense of maintaining duplicate facilities, agreed to hold its meetings at both buildings on an alternating basis.
Pictou County – Pictou, 1856
After its creation as a separate district in 1790, Pictou was in desperate need of a courthouse. The first sittings of the Supreme Court were reportedly held in a barn that also housed a pig sty and, in summer, jurors retired to a nearby pasture to consider their verdicts. A courthouse and jail building was erected in 1813. The prosperity of the county’s coalfields and factories led to the construction in the 1850s of an ornate two-storey building decorated with exterior architectural flourishes and intricate wood carving and mouldings inside.
The impressive Supreme Court chamber was two stories high, with a spectators’ gallery and a stained glass window depicting the goddess of justice with her sword and scales. A federal government heritage report described it as “the most elaborately detailed courthouse constructed of wood in Nova Scotia.” Sadly, the building fell victim to arson and burned to the ground in 1985. By then court sessions were held in a new facility, the Pictou Justice Centre, built on the town’s waterfront in the 1970s.
Queen’s County – Liverpool, 1854
With its classic architecture, the Queens County courthouse in Liverpool would be at home among the temples of ancient Greece. A large portico, spanning the entire width of the front facade, is supported by four massive, fluted columns. The impressive wooden building was erected in 1854 to replace a predecessor that visiting Supreme Court judges condemned as “truly disgraceful.” The new building, in contrast, was praised in the local newspaper as “very comfortable, substantial and well built.” It is also compact, consisting of an entry hall, courtroom and rooms for the judge and lawyers laid out on a single floor. A dispute among local officials over where it should be sited within the town continued even after its completion – one of the first cases heard within its walls dealt with an attempt to withhold payment to the builder. Built the year the Supreme Court marked its centennial, it remains in use.
Richmond County – Arichat, 1847
The port of Arichat, on Cape Breton’s southern coast, was one of the province’s busiest ports – hailed as “the key to the Canadas” due to its strategic location at the entrance to the Strait of Canso – when its impressive courthouse was erected in 1847. The designer of this “ornament to the County of Richmond,” as local officials described it, was Alexander McDonald, who went on to build courthouses with nearly identical Greek-inspired facades in Sherbrooke and Antigonish. Besides housing the jail, Supreme Court chamber and offices, the courthouse was the heart community life from its inception until the early 1900s, hosting election debates, gala balls and even traveling vaudeville shows. A rear addition was built in 1978 to house municipal and court offices and the courtroom remains in use.
Shelburne County – Shelburne – 1903
After this South Shore town was founded by Loyalists in 1784, court was held in a rented house near the centre of the community. Archival records show a permanent courthouse was built about 1849 at the corner of King and Mowat streets. The current courthouse, a three-storey, wood-frame structure, was built in 1902-03 and designed by Halifax architect Harris S. Tremaine. A two-storey brick addition was completed in the 1960s. The building houses a courtroom, municipal and court offices, the sheriff’s department and a jail.
The courthouse was the scene of Nova Scotia’s last execution. In December 1937, Everett Farmer of Shelburne was hanged for the murder of his half-brother. A makeshift gallows was built in a room on the building’s second floor that was so small, it could barely accommodate the executioner and the half-dozen witnesses (the practice of holding public executions ended in the mid-1800s). A large beam was erected across the ceiling of the room to support the noose, which dangled over a hole cut in the floor. When a trapdoor covering the hole was sprung, the condemned man’s body dropped through and into the room below, breaking his neck.
St. Mary’s (District) – Sherbrooke, 1858
In 1841, within a year of the District of St. Mary’s being carved out of neighbouring Guysborough County, a courthouse was built at its most important village, Sherbrooke. Almost immediately, local officials began raising money and making plans for a more elaborate structure. The builder, Alexander McDonald, copied the Greek Revival plan he had used in his earlier courthouses in Antigonish and Arichat, with four temple-style columns to frame the main entrance. The courthouse was used for an array of public meetings and lectures over the years, but officials rejected a bid to use it for a dance school.
Named in 1815 in honour of Sir John Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia’s lieutenant governor, the settlement became a boom town after gold was discovered in the area in the 1860s. Little changed since the gold rush ended in the late 1800s, the community found new life in 1969 as the province’s largest museum. More than 25 of its historic homes, shops and public buildings have been preserved as they were a century ago and are open to the public. Among them is the courthouse, was continued to be used for court sessions until July 2000. With its excellent acoustics, the courthouse has found new life as a venue for concerts and theatrical performances.
Victoria County – Baddeck, 1890
Victoria County was created in 1851 but managed to soldier on without a courthouse for almost four decades. A jail was built in 1852 at Baddeck, the county seat, but court sessions apparently were held in the home of the local magistrate. The jail was demolished and replaced in 1890 with the courthouse that still stands on the site. The granite-block first storey housed the jail and offices, with an oak staircase leading to the Supreme Court chamber on the second floor. The second storey was built of wood, with large windows overlooking the Bras d’Or Lakes. A wing to house additional court and municipal offices was added in 1967, matching the original architecture. A further expansion was completed in 1980.
Yarmouth County – Yarmouth, 1933
Yarmouth, the largest community in southwestern Nova Scotia, was a major centre for trade, fishing, shipbuilding and manufacturing in the nineteenth century. The community’s first courthouse was built in 1820, but two of its three replacements succumbed to fire. The courthouse built in 1863 burned down in 1921. A new one was erected, only to be destroyed by fire a decade later. The current courthouse was opened in 1933 and survived a 1988 fire. A two-storey structure built of brick, its functional exterior incorporates traditional Georgian features and symmetry that produce a blend of the old and the new.
Sources: C.A. Hale, The Early Court Houses of Nova Scotia, vols. 1 and 2, Manuscript Report No. 293, (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1977); Hale, “Early Court Houses of the Maritime Provinces,” in Margaret Carter, comp., Early Canadian Court Houses (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1983), pp. 37-77; South Shore, Seasoned Timbers, vol. 2: Some Historic Buildings from Nova Scotia’s South Shore (Halifax: Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, 1974); Master Plan for Nova Scotia Courthouse Facilities, prepared for Departments of Justice and Transportation and Public Works, March 31, 1997; Dean Jobb, Shades of Justice: Seven Nova Scotia Murder Cases (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 1988).
Twenty-one chief justices have presided over the Nova Scotia Supreme Court in the 250 years since English lawyer Jonathan Belcher arrived in Halifax to found the court in October 1754. The longest serving chief justice, Sampson Salter Blowers, was in office for a remarkable 35 years, from 1797 until he retired in 1832 at age 90. Lauchlin Daniel Currie, in contrast, served barely 13 months before retiring in 1968. Two of their number – Charles Morris and Isaac Deschamps – had no legal training and held office on an interim basis during the court’s formative years. While the rest were lawyers, and most made their mark in politics, they came from varying backgrounds – one worked as a coal miner and bricklayer, one served in the military, one was Halifax’s mayor and another its city manager. A couple of chief justices turned their hand to writing, chronicling the court’s history and the careers of their predecessors. Our current chief justice, Constance R. Glube – the only woman to hold the post – will retire at the end of 2004, making way for her successor as Nova Scotia’s twenty-second chief justice.
Jonathan Belcher 1754-1776, First Chief Justice
After Halifax was founded in 1749, Nova Scotia’s fledgling justice system was in the hands of magistrates and members of the governor’s council – none of them legally trained. Demands for a trained law officer were answered in 1754, when British officials dispatched Jonathan Belcher to the colony as chief justice of a newly created Supreme Court. Born in Boston on July 23, 1710, Belcher was the son of a New England governor and well educated, with degrees from Harvard College and Cambridge University. He studied law in London, was admitted to the English bar in 1734, practiced law in Dublin and published a compilation of Irish law.
Installed as chief justice in October 1754 in an elaborate ceremony in Halifax, Belcher applied English laws and precedents to offset the influence of the Massachusetts laws previously favoured within the colony. Belcher drafted many of Nova Scotia’s earliest statutes and laid the legal foundations for Canada’s first elected legislature, which convened in 1758. He assumed the governor’s duties upon the death of Charles Lawrence in 1760, but political inexperience and clashes with Halifax’s merchants ensured he was the only chief justice to govern Nova Scotia. His legal opinion supporting the expulsion of the Acadians in 1755 and his attempt to deport a group of Acadian prisoners amid fears of a French attack in 1762 further tarnished his reputation. Belcher sought permission to resign in 1776 due to declining health and died March 30, 1776 in Halifax.
For more information on Jonathan Belcher, consult the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=35872
Charles Morris 1776-1778, Second Chief Justice
Born June 8, 1711 in Boston, Charles Morris first came to Nova Scotia as an officer in New England regiments sent to bolster the British garrison at Annapolis Royal. His skill at cataloguing the areas he visited led to his appointment as Nova Scotia’s first surveyor. Morris laid out the street plans for Halifax and Lunenburg and surveyed outlying townships as far north as New Brunswick as the colony grew in the 1760s.
Although he lacked formal legal training, Morris was made a justice of Halifax’s inferior court of common pleas in 1752. In 1763 he was one of two assistant judges appointed to the Supreme Court to assist the chief justice, Jonathan Belcher. When Belcher died in March 1776, Morris, as the senior assistant judge, was tapped to fill in as chief justice until a replacement was found. As chief justice Morris heard a number of major cases, including charges of treason against rebel soldiers who besieged Fort Cumberland, near Amherst, in 1776, in a failed effort to import the American Revolution to Nova Scotia. He reverted to his assistant judge’s post in May 1778 when Bryan Finucane – who had been appointed chief justice at the end of 1776 – finally took office. Morris died in Windsor, N.S. on Nov. 4, 1781.
For more information on Charles Morris, consult the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=36201
Bryan Finucane 1778-1785, Third Chief Justice
Bryan Finucane was born in County Clare – the only Irish-born chief justice of Nova Scotia – sometime before 1744. He studied law at London’s Middle Temple, was admitted the Irish bar in 1764 and practiced in Dublin for several years. Finucane was appointed chief justice in December 1776 but did not arrive in Halifax until April 1778. He was sworn into office on May 1, 1778.
Finucane balked at traveling on circuit and tried, unsuccessfully, to reduce the length of sittings in Halifax. He was granted a leave absence to travel to England, where he spent most of 1782-1783. Upon his return he was sent to New Brunswick to help settle the claims of Loyalist refugees. Considered a man of great integrity and an “upright judge,” Finucane died in Halifax on August 3, 1785 after “a painful and tedious illness.” He is buried at St. Paul’s Church in Halifax.
For more information on Bryan Finucane, see Barry Cahill, “The Career of Chief Justice Bryan Finucane,” Nova Scotia Historical Society Collections, vol. 42 (1986), pp. 153-69.
Isaac Deschamps 1785-1788, Fourth Chief Justice
Isaac Deschamps is believed to have been born in Switzerland in 1722 and came to Halifax in 1749, the year the city was founded. Fluent in French and English, he was a natural choice as an agent for merchants trading with the Acadians and Mi’kmaq and was often called upon to translate official documents. Between 1759 and 1783 he served as MLA for a succession of ridings – Annapolis County, Falmouth Township and Newport Township.
In 1761 he was appointed justice of the inferior court of common pleas and judge of probate for King’s County. He served as a judge of the inferior court of Prince Edward Island in 1768, but the appointment was cut short when the island became a separate colony in 1769. He was named an assistant judge of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court in 1770. Deschamps had no legal training and in 1787 some politicians and lawyers, including Loyalists who coveted judgeships for themselves, accused Deschamps and assistant judge James Brenton of incompetence and bias. The controversy over the “Judges’ Affair” continued even after English lawyer Jeremy Pemberton replaced Deschamps as chief justice in 1788. The legislature voted to impeach Deschamps and Brenton in 1790 but the British authorities ultimately exonerated both judges. Deschamps continued to serve as a judge until his death at Windsor, N.S., on August 11, 1801.
For more information on Isaac Deschamps, consult the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=36488
Jeremy Pemberton 1788-89, Fifth Chief Justice
Jeremy Pemberton was the youngest chief justice of the Supreme Court, taking office at age 33. Born in Cambridgeshire, England in 1741, he was the grandson of Sir Francis Pemberton, a lord chief justice of England. He attended Lincoln’s Inn and was admitted to law practice in 1762.
In 1785 he was appointed to investigate claims of Loyalists in the British North American colonies. He was named chief justice in August 1788 in the midst of the “Judges’ Affair,” as Loyalist newcomers agitated to impeach the Supreme Court’s two assistant judges – neither of them legally trained – on allegations of incompetence and bias. While Pemberton provided the legal expertise the court needed, he did not stay long enough to stabilize the court. He resigned in October 1789 and returned to England, where he died on July 14, 1790.
For more information, see Sir Joseph A. Chisholm, “Three Chief Justices of Nova Scotia,” Nova Scotia Historical Society Collections, vol. 28 (1949), pp. 148-58.
Sir Thomas Andrew Lumisden Strange 1789-1797, Sixth Chief Justice
Thomas Andrew Lumisden Strange had been practicing law in England for just four years when he was named chief justice in 1789 and sent to Nova Scotia to rescue the court from the taint of the “Judges’ Affair.” Born in England on November 30, 1756, Strange obtained degrees from an Oxford college and trained at Lincoln’s Inn before being admitted to the bar in 1785. He had a reputation as “a most excellent theoretical lawyer.”
Strange managed to mollify those seeking to impeach assistant judges Isaac Deschamps and James Brenton, whom he considered “very amiable, deserving persons and of great assistance” to him. Governor John Wentworth praised Strange as “indefatigable in his duty” and said losing him would be “the greatest misfortune” to Nova Scotia. But Strange was soon ready to move on and, as early as 1794, was lobbying for the chief justiceship of Upper Canada. He returned to England in 1796 and resigned the following year. He became chief justice of the supreme court in Madras (India) in 1800 and wrote a two-volume text on Hindu law. He died July 16, 1841 in England.
For more information on Sir Thomas Andrew Lumisden Strange, consult the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=37801
Sampson Salter Blowers 1797-1832, Seventh Chief Justice
One of Sampson Salter Blowers’ first cases was helping to defend British Redcoats accused of murder in 1770 for firing into crowds in the infamous Boston Massacre. Not surprisingly, the Harvard-educated lawyer was among the Loyalists forced to flee to Nova Scotia after the American Revolution. Born in Boston on March 10, 1741 (possibly 1742), Blowers was called to the bar in Massachusetts in 1766. Imprisoned briefly by the American authorities, Blowers was an admiralty judge in British-occupied Newport, R.I. and later New York’s solicitor general.
He arrived in Halifax in 1783, carved out a busy law practice and was named the province’s attorney general a year later. He was elected as an MLA for Halifax County in 1785 and selected as speaker of the House of Assembly. Blowers backed the Supreme Court’s beleaguered assistant judges Isaac Deschamps and James Brenton in the “Judges’ Affair” and joined them on the bench in September 1797, when he was appointed chief justice. One contemporary considered him “truly eminent for a high standard of legal knowledge, logical skill, and power of argument.” Even though advancing age curtailed his ability to conduct trials, Blowers clung to office but was finally forced to resign in late 1832. He died on October 25, 1842 in Halifax, seven months after his 100th birthday, after breaking his hip in a fall.
For more information on Sampson Salter Blowers, consult the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=37377
Sir Brenton Halliburton 1833-1860, Eighth Chief Justice
Brenton Halliburton is the only chief justice who commanded a fortress as well as the Supreme Court. Born December 27, 1774, in Newport, R.I., he came to Halifax in 1782 when his father, a doctor in the Royal Navy, joined the Loyalist exodus. Halliburton was educated in London but returned to Nova Scotia and joined the army when war broke out with France in 1793. He was put in command of York Redoubt, a fortress that guarded the entrance to Halifax Harbour.
Halliburton, who had begun studying law before the war began, resumed his legal career and was admitted to the bar in 1803. When his uncle, James Brenton, died in January 1807, Halliburton took his place as an assistant judge of the Supreme Court – becoming the first assistant judge with legal training. The governor of the day, Lord Dalhousie, regarded Halliburton as “a loyal subject and a morally good man.” Halifax lawyer Peter Lynch would later observe that Halliburton’s legal knowledge “was not very extensive, but like his wine it was of the best quality.”
Halliburton would later claim he shouldered the chief justice’s duties for the last decade of
Sampson Salter Blowers’ long tenure. When the aging Blowers was finally forced to retire, Halliburton succeed him in 1833. He presided over Joseph Howe’s libel trial in 1835 and was the last chief justice to sit as a member of the council that governed the province. He died in office on July 16, 1860, at age 85.
For more information on Sir Brenton Halliburton, consult the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=38071
Sir William Young 1860-1881, Ninth Chief Justice
Born in Falkirk, Scotland, on September 8, 1799, William Young claimed to have completed a degree from the University of Glasgow by age 14, when he came to Halifax with his family. His father was John Young, a merchant and politician who wrote the “Letters of Agricola,” a popular newspaper series promoting agriculture. After working as a trading agent for his father, William Young was called to the bar in 1825. In the courtroom, he was described as “an excellent tactician (who) pressed himself strongly on courts and juries.”
Young followed his father into provincial politics, winning the Cape Breton riding of Inverness in 1836. He became speaker of the House of Assembly and was allied with Joseph Howe and other reformers in the drive for Responsible Government in the 1840s. Young served as attorney general from 1854-1857 and became premier in February 1860. Young had long coveted the chief justiceship and, after Brenton Haliburton’s death later that year, he outraged his political rivals by naming himself to the post.
His judicial rulings were considered “showy rather than substantial.” Short of stature – he bore the nickname “Little Billy” all his life – Young reputedly padded his courtroom chair with cushions to ensure he sat no lower than his fellow judges. Young was a generous benefactor of Dalhousie University and the City of Halifax – he convinced the British government to lease Point Pleasant Park to the city and donated the gates that adorn the park’s entrance. Young retired in 1881 and died on May 8, 1887.
For more information on Sir William Young, consult the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=40041
James McDonald 1881-1905, Tenth Chief Justice
Born in Bridgeville, N.S., on July 1, 1828 and a descendant of Pictou County’s Scottish settlers, James McDonald taught school for a couple of years before studying law with a local legal and political luminary, Martin I. Wilkins. Called to the bar in 1851, McDonald practised law in Pictou and had a commanding presence in the courtroom, arguing cases “with considerable skill and fluency.” Elected MLA in 1859, he was appointed chief railway commissioner in the Tory government and fought to have a branch line built to his rapidly industrializing Pictou county riding. McDonald supported Confederation and was elected as a Conservative MP for Pictou County in 1872 and 1878.
He became federal minister of justice in 1878 and held the post until he was named chief justice in May 1881 – a rare case of a lawyer being appointed directly to the chief justice’s post. Just 52, he injected “energy, affability and courtesy” into an aging bench in need of leadership and fresh blood. McDonald declined the knighthood that, by tradition, came with the position. While known for not keeping abreast of changes to the law, he often championed the underdog and “would strain the law to the breaking-point to save someone.” Fluent in Gaelic, he once presided over a trial at Baddeck in which he and everyone else involved – lawyers, witnesses and jurors – used only that language. McDonald retired in 1904 and died Oct. 3, 1912, at Blinkbonnie, his Halifax estate.
For more information on James McDonald, consult the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=41701
Sir Robert Linton Weatherbe 1905-1907, Eleventh Chief Justice
Born in Bedeque, P.E.I. on April 7, 1836, Robert Linton Weatherbe was the son of a merchant and shipowner. He received a master of arts degree from Acadia College in 1861 and was admitted to the Nova Scotia bar two years later. Weatherbe practiced in Halifax with Wallace Nesbit Graham, the thirteenth chief justice, and was the Legislature's law clerk from 1868-1878. Known for his "florid eloquence and impassioned rhetoric," he helped Canada win a major fishing dispute with the United States in 1877.
He was named to the Supreme Court in October of the following year, one of many last-minute Liberal appointees rewarded before the defeated government of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie left office. Described as "impatient, vain, and domineering," Weatherbe became something of a devil's advocate on the court, frequently writing judgments that dissented from the views of his colleagues. As senior judge, he was tapped in January 1905 to replace James McDonald as chief justice, only to retire little more than two years later in March 1907. Weatherbe died in Halifax on April 27, 1915.
For more information on Sir Robert Linton Weatherbe, consult the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=41883
Sir Charles James Townshend 1907-1915, Twelfth Chief Justice
Charles James Townshend was born in Amherst, N.S. on March 22, 1844, the son of a clergyman and grandson of a Supreme Court judge, Alexander Stewart. He graduated from King’s College in Windsor, N.S. with honours in 1863. Townshend articled in the law office of Senator R.B. Dickey of Amherst. He was admitted to the bar in 1866 and eventually took over the practice when Dickey retired. He served as MLA for Cumberland County from 1878-1884, was minister without portfolio in the provincial cabinet until 1882, then switched to the federal arena in 1884. In 1885, as Cumberland’s MP, Townshend put forward an amendment to the Franchise Bill to delete a clause that would have given women the right to vote.
Townshend was appointed to the Supreme Court in March 1887 and, in 1907, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier appointed him chief justice. Sir Henry Strong, chief justice of Canada, once noted that Townshend’s rulings were “characterized by lucidity and sound reasoning.” Another observer noted that his reasoned judgments and “modest demeanor ... placed him beyond criticism by members of the bar.” Townshend, who published studies of other chief justices and court history, retired in April 1914. He died in Wolfville on June 16, 1924.
For more information on Sir Charles James Townshend, see W. Stewart Wallace, The Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Toronto: Macmillan, 1973), p. 753.
Sir Wallace Nesbit Graham 1915-1917, Thirteenth Chief Justice
Political and professional ties propelled Wallace Graham to the chief justice’s post, but his impartiality and legal skill cemented his claim to the office. Born in Antigonish on January 15, 1848, he was the son of a sea captain and shipbuilder. Educated at Acadia College, he studied law with a Halifax firm and was called to the bar in 1871. Graham practiced in Halifax with future Conservative prime ministers John S.D. Thompson and Robert L. Borden, and was also a law partner of the eleventh chief justice, Sir Robert Linton Weatherbe.
Colleagues respected Graham’s “character, integrity, and ability,” according to a biographer. Thompson considered him the ablest lawyer in the Maritimes and, as federal minister of justice, appointed Graham to the Supreme Court in September 1889. Graham accepted out of a desire to improve and professionalize the court. His rulings in divorce and child custody cases have been credited with making the law more fair to women. His reputation for impartiality led to his 1914 appointment to chair a royal commission that investigated politically sensitive conflict-of-interest allegations against Nova Scotia’s attorney general. In April 19, 1915 Borden, by now prime minister, named him chief justice and Graham was knighted the following year. He died in office on October 12, 1917.
For more information on Sir Wallace Nesbit Graham, consult the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=37377
Robert Edward Harris 1918-1931, Fourteenth Chief Justice
Robert Edward Harris was born at Annapolis Royal, N.S. on August 18, 1860. He taught school in nearby Tupperville for two years, then studied law with a local lawyer and in the firm of Sir John S.D. Thompson, later the prime minister, and Sir Wallace Graham, who would become his predecessor as chief justice. Harris was admitted to the Nova Scotia bar in 1882 after placing first in the bar exams. While practicing law in Yarmouth and later in Halifax, Harris was described as “an organizing genius” and the “most courteous of men.” A specialist in corporate law, he was president of Eastern Trust Company, Nova Scotia Steel & Coal Company and other firms. He served as president of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society in 1906 and in 1908-1909.
Harris was a friend of Prime Minister Robert L. Borden, who appointed him to the Supreme Court in June 1915 and bypassed senior judges to name him chief justice in March 1918. Harris, regarded as “an efficient chief justice,” collected many of the portraits of former chief justices and senior judges that now hang in The Law Courts in Halifax and were reproduced in a book compiled by his nephew, R.V. Harris. Another of his legacies was the ceremonial mace he presented to the Nova Scotia Legislature. Harris died on May 30, 1931.
For more information on Robert Edward Harris, see R.E. Inglis, “Sketches of Two Chief Justices of Nova Scotia, Sir Charles Townshend, Robert E. Harris,” Nova Scotia Historical Society Collections, vol. 39 (1977), pp. 107-19.
Sir Joseph Andrew Chisholm 1931-1950, Fifteenth Chief Justice
Joseph Andrew Chisholm was born in St. Andrews, N.S., on January 9, 1863 and educated at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish and at Dalhousie Law School. Called to the bar in 1886, he joined the Halifax law firm headed by a future prime minister, Robert L. Borden. Chisholm was mayor of Halifax from 1909-1911 and in 1916 Borden’s government appointed him to the Supreme Court.
Chisholm was elevated to the chief justiceship in 1931. A keen student of the province’s legal history, he wrote a number of historical papers on the careers of his predecessors as chief justice and edited a revised edition of The Speeches and Public Letters of Joseph Howe that was published in 1909. The first Dalhousie law graduate to serve on the court, Chisholm was also the last Nova Scotia chief justice to be knighted, an honour bestowed in 1935. He remained chief justice until his death on January 22, 1950 at age 87.
For more information on Sir Joseph Andrew Chisholm, see W. Stewart Wallace, The Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Toronto: Macmillan, 1973), p. 136.
James Lorimer Ilsley 1950-1967, Sixteenth Chief Justice
James Lorimer Ilsley, better known as J.L. Ilsley, was born in Somerset, N.S. in 1894. He attended public schools in Berwick and went on to Acadia University and Dalhousie Law School. He was admitted to the bar in 1916 and practiced in Kentville for 20 years. In 1926, he embarked on a remarkable public career during which he was elected five times as MP for an Annapolis Valley riding. From 1935-1940 he was minister of national revenue and served as the minister of finance for the remainder of the Second World War. Historian Jack Granatstein has described him as possessing “the sharpest mind and the finest oratorical style” of Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s talented wartime cabinet.
Ilsley was known as a “champion of world co-operation” and was Canada’s delegate to the League of Nations and in 1947 to the United Nations. He was federal justice minister and attorney General from 1946 to 1948. Appointed to the Supreme Court in May 1949, he was named chief justice less than a year later. In 1966, he became chief justice of the court’s newly created Appeal Division. He died on January 14, 1967.
Lauchlin Daniel Currie 1967-1968, Seventeenth Chief Justice
Born March 28, 1893 at North Sydney, Lauchlin Daniel Currie worked as a coal miner and bricklayer before graduating from Dalhousie Law School in 1922. He was the lawyer for the Cape Breton division of the United Mine Workers of America for a decade, before entering politics in 1933.
Currie was Liberal MLA for Cape Breton East from 1933-1941 and represented another Cape Breton riding, Richmond, from 1941-1949. During the 1940s he held a number of cabinet posts, including attorney general and minister of mines, labour and public health. Appointed to the Supreme Court in 1949, he was elevated to chief justice of the Trial Division in 1966 and to chief justice of the Appeal Division (making him chief justice of Nova Scotia) in February 1967. He retired in March 1968 and died the following February in Halifax.
For more information, see Shirley B. Elliott, ed., The Legislative Assembly of Nova Scotia, 1758-1983: A Biographical Directory (Halifax: Province of Nova Scotia, 1984), p. 45.
Alexander Hugh MacKinnon 1968-1973, Eighteenth Chief Justice
Alexander Hugh McKinnon was born in Inverness, N.S., on December 24, 1904 and educated at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. He received his law degree from Dalhousie Law School in 1929 and was admitted to the bar that year. He practiced law for twenty years in Inverness, a coal mining town on Cape Breton’s west coast. The MLA for Inverness from 1940-1953, he served as minister of health and as minister of labour and mines.
In 1954 McKinnon was appointed judge of the County Court for Antigonish. He was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court’s Appeal Division in 1966 and, in 1968, he was named chief justice of Nova Scotia. He died on June 16, 1973.
For more information, see Shirley B. Elliott, ed., The Legislative Assembly of Nova Scotia, 1758-1983: A Biographical Directory (Halifax: Province of Nova Scotia, 1984), p. 140.
Ian Malcolm MacKeigan 1973-1985, Nineteenth Chief Justice
Ian Malcolm MacKeigan had no previous judicial experience when he was appointed chief justice – the first Nova Scotia lawyer named chief justice “off the street” since James McDonald in 1881. Born in 1915 in Saint John, N.B., MacKeigan graduated from Dalhousie Law School and was admitted to the Nova Scotia bar in 1938. After working in Ottawa for the federal government for a decade, he returned to Halifax, where he practiced law from 1950-1973. He chaired the Atlantic Development Board, was a member of the Economic Council of Canada, and served as a director of major companies including John Labatt Ltd. and Gulf Oil Canada. He was president of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society from 1959-1960.
His tenure was marred by a case that began before he assumed office in 1973 – Donald Marshall Jr.’s wrongful murder conviction in 1971. When the case was brought before the Appeal Division in 1982, MacKeigan and four other judges cleared Marshall of the crime but, in effect, blamed him for the miscarriage of justice. The inquiry into the Marshall case tried to force the judges to explain themselves and later criticized the court’s effort to exonerate the justice system. In 1985, in the midst of the Marshall controversy, MacKeigan stepped down as chief justice but continued to hear cases as a supernumerary (part-time) judge until 1990. He died May 1, 1996, in Halifax.
For more information on Ian Malcolm MacKeigan, see K. Simpson, ed., Canadian Who’s Who, vol. 27 (1992) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), p. 659.
Lorne O. Clarke 1985-1998, Twentieth Chief Justice
Born in Malagash, N.S. in 1928, Lorne Clarke received his legal education at Dalhousie and Harvard universities. He taught at Dalhousie Law School in the 1950s, practiced law in Truro from 1959-1981, served on two royal commissions that examined workers' compensation, and was often called upon to settle labour and commercial disputes.
Clarke was appointed to the Supreme Court's Trial Division in February 1981 and was elevated to chief justice of the Appeal Division (now the Court of Appeal) in 1985. He instituted many reforms in response to the 1990 inquiry into Donald Marshall Jr.'s wrongful conviction for murder, which found that racism and favouritism tainted the province's justice system. Clarke is credited with making Nova Scotia's courts a national leader in judicial education and media relations, as well as more accessible and accountable to the public.
Clarke retired from the court in June 1998 and joined a group of retired judges and senior lawyers at ADR Chambers, which offers mediation services. He continues to contribute to the community in a variety of ways, including as chair of a committee that selected a memorial to the victims of the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111 off Peggy's Cove.
For more information on Lorne O. Clarke, see the biography on the ADR Cambers website: http://www.adrchambers.com/cv-clarke.htm
Constance R. Glube 1998-2004, Twenty-first Chief Justice
Constance R. Glube led the Supreme Court into the twenty-first century. She was born in Ottawa on November 23, 1931 and received her undergraduate education at Montreal’s McGill University. She completed her law degree at Dalhousie Law School in 1955 and was admitted to the bar the following year. She practiced in Halifax for four years before joining the legal department of the City of Halifax in 1969. A series of firsts followed – the first woman to be a city manager in Canada (1974), the first woman appointed to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court (1977), and the first woman named chief justice of a Canadian court (1982).
Glube served as chief of the court’s trial division until June 1998, when she succeeded Lorne Clarke as chief justice of the Court of Appeal and the province – another Nova Scotia first for a woman. Held in high regard for her administrative abilities, she has served on a number of committees of the Canadian Judicial Council and was a leader in the development of educational programs for judges. Glube has announced that she will retire on Dec. 31. 2004.
For more information on Constance R. Glube, see Canadian Who’s Who 1997 online: http://www.utpress.utoronto.ca/cgi-bin/cw2w3.cgi?p=gillham&t=79395&d=1903
Note: Additional information for these biographies has been drawn from The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia and Its Judges: 1754-1978 (Halifax: Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, 1978).
The Ritchies: A judicial family
It’s safe to say that judging and the law run in the Ritchie family. Since the 1820s the Ritchie clan of Annapolis Royal has produced more than 20 lawyers and seven judges, including four members of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court and a chief justice of Canada.
Annapolis Royal lawyer and politician Thomas Ritchie launched this “family business” in 1824, when he was named to the inferior court of common pleas. One of his sons, John William Ritchie, gravitated into politics and became one of Nova Scotia’s Fathers of Confederation. Appointed to the Supreme Court in 1870, he earned a reputation as one of its “ablest judges” before he retired in 1882. Another son, J. Norman Ritchie, also served on the Supreme Court. Remarkably a third son, William Johnston Ritchie, pursued a legal and political career in New Brunswick before becoming that province’s chief justice in 1865. Elevated to the Supreme Court of Canada upon its creation in 1875, he was Canada’s chief justice from 1879 until his death in Ottawa in 1892.
The next two generations of Ritchies each produced a judge. One of Thomas Ritchie’s grandsons, James Johnston Ritchie, served on the Nova Scotia Supreme Court from 1912-1925. A great-grandson, Roland A. Ritchie, served on the Supreme Court of Canada from 1959-1984. A great-great grandson, David Ritchie Chipman, served on Nova Scotia’s Court of Appeal from 1987 to 2005, representing the fifth generation of Ritchie judges. And his son, James L. Chipman, became the sixth generation when he was appointed to Nova Scotia's Supreme Court in 2013. It is, in the words of legal historian Philip Girard, “Nova Scotia’s best-known legal dynasty.”
For more information on the Ritchie family, see Charles St. C. Stayner, “John William Ritchie: One of the Fathers of Confederation,” Nova Scotia Historical Society Collections, vol. 36 (1968), pp. 180-277.
Richard John Uniacke Jr.: The judge who stood trial for murder
It was called an “affair of honour,” but in the eyes of the law it could have been an act of cold-blooded murder. On the morning of July 21, 1819, a field near Halifax echoed with gunshots as lawyer Richard John Uniacke Jr. and a merchant, William Bowie, fought one of Nova Scotia’s last duels. Uniacke proved the better marksman, shooting his opponent in the side. Bowie died later that day and Uniacke, son of the province’s attorney general, was charged with murder.
The killing sent shock waves through the city. Ships in port flew their flags at half-mast and The Acadian Recorder newspaper reported that “a general gloom seemed to pervade all ranks of society.” A few days earlier, while acting for a client in a civil case, Uniacke had made disparaging remarks about Bowie, possibly branding him a smuggler. Bowie called Uniacke a liar and demanded a retraction; Uniacke refused and, to preserve his good name, demanded the duel.
The trial was more of a show than a cliff-hanger. Uniacke’s powerful father, Richard John Uniacke Sr., accompanied his son into the courtroom and kept a close eye on the proceedings. No one – not the judges who presided, the gentlemen picked for the jury, or the prosecuting officers – was eager to see Uniacke convicted, and possibly hanged, for resorting to violence in order to protect his honour. It was clear Bowie had consented to put his life on the line and Uniacke insisted he showed up at the duelling grounds “void of any vindictive feelings, with no desire to shed human blood.” The jury deliberated just half an hour before finding him not guilty.
The incident did little to hinder Uniacke’s career. He was elected as an MLA for Cape Breton the following year and was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1830, making him the court’s first Nova Scotia-born judge. Uniacke apparently never recovered from killing Bowie and one observer claimed the strain contributed his premature death in 1834, at age 44.
For more information about Richard John Uniacke Jr.’s trial, see Dean Jobb, “For the Sake of Honour,” in Shades of Justice: Seven Nova Scotia Murder Cases (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 1988), pp. 1-12.
Author on the Bench: Thomas Chandler Haliburton, creator of Sam Slick
Seeing is believing. Live and let live. Sharp as a needle. Author and Supreme Court judge Thomas Chandler Haliburton created – or at least popularized – these and a host of other everyday sayings through his most renowned character, the fictional Yankee clockmaker Sam Slick.
Haliburton, the son and grandson of judges, was born in Windsor, N.S., on December 17, 1796. Educated in his hometown at King’s College, he was admitted to the bar in 1820 and established a profitable law practice in Annapolis Royal. Elected as Annapolis Royal’s MLA in 1826, he resigned in 1829 to become a judge of the inferior court of common pleas – a post left vacant by his father’s death. When that court was abolished in 1841, Haliburton was elevated to the Supreme Court, where he was praised as “conscientious, upright, intelligent, adhering to the spirit rather than to the letter of the law.”
Sam Slick himself might well have described his creator as a man who had “too many irons in the fire.” While pursuing his judicial career, Haliburton was busy carving out a reputation as one of the leading writers and satirists of the nineteenth century. Three volumes of The Clockmaker series, featuring Slick’s biting commentary on contemporary society and politics, were published between 1836 and 1840, and The Old Judge; Or, Life in a Colony, a nostalgic look at Nova Scotia, appeared in 1849. These and Haliburton’s other books were published in dozens of editions in Canada, Britain and the United States, cementing his reputation as the “father of American humour.” In the mid-1800s, one literary scholar has noted, Haliburton and his books “had a vogue on both sides of the Atlantic which rivalled that enjoyed by Charles Dickens.”
Ill health forced Haliburton to retire in 1856, and he waged a bitter legal battle with the Nova Scotia government before securing a pension. He moved to England, married a wealthy widow and served in the British House of Commons from 1859-1865. He died in Middlesex, England, on August 27, 1865. Haliburton House, his mansion in Windsor, is now a museum.
For more information on Thomas Chandler Haliburton, see the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=38597.
The Tragedy of James Robinson Johnston
James Robinson Johnston was Nova Scotia’s first black lawyer and may well have become the province’s first black judge. Born in Halifax in 1876, he was the first black graduate of Dalhousie Law School – only the third Canadian-born black to earn a law degree – and was admitted to the bar at the dawn of a new century, in 1900. He carved out a successful practice in criminal and military law and dabbled in politics – active in the Conservative party, he was seen as a future candidate for Halifax city council.
But Johnston’s promising career was cut short in 1915, when he was just 39. He was shot to death by his wife’s brother, Harry Allen, during an altercation at his Halifax home. Allen was convicted of murder and served 14 years in prison despite his lawyer’s dubious effort to portray Johnston as an abusive husband. Some 10,000 people attended Johnston’s funeral and Prime Minister Robert Borden sent a telegram expressing sadness at the death of a man described as “an ornament” to the legal profession. It would be the 1980s – more than 65 years after his death – before the first black person was appointed to a Nova Scotia court. In 1996 Dalhousie Law School established a chair in black Canadian studies that bears Johnston’s name.
For more information on James Robinson Johnston, see Barry Cahill, “The ‘Colored Barrister’: The Short Life and Tragic Death of James Robinson Johnston, 1876-1915,” Dalhousie Law Journal, vol. 15, no. 2 (Fall 1992), pp. 336-379.
Blowers and Uniacke: A bitter rivalry
Imagine Nova Scotia’s top judge and the province’s leading law enforcement official fighting a duel. Such a spectacle nearly occurred in Halifax in 1798, when Chief Justice Sampson Salter Blowers challenged the attorney general, Richard John Uniacke, to fight a duel.
Uniacke was the patriarch of one of Nova Scotia’s most wealthy and influential families, a legal and political powerhouse who dominated the local government. Blowers was a leader among the Americans who had backed the wrong side in the Revolutionary War and fled to Nova Scotia. Their testy relationship epitomized the clash between locals and Loyalist newcomers for power and government jobs. Uniacke had designs on the chief justice’s post that went to Blowers in 1797, and succeeded Blowers as attorney general.
The two men had nearly squared off in 1791, after Blowers hired a servant that Uniacke had fired. Uniacke insulted and berated Blowers and the latter issued a challenge, but the authorities intervened and prevented a duel. Cooler heads again prevailed in 1798 after Uniacke got the better of one of Blowers’ associates, Loyalist lawyer Jonathan Sterns, in a street fight. Blowers, by now the chief justice, again issued a challenge to fight a duel. Uniacke accepted, but once again Halifax’s magistrates stepped in and ordered both men to keep the peace. Uniacke was never prosecuted for beating Sterns, even though the assault may have contributed to Sterns’ death not long afterwards.
For more information on the rivalry between Uniacke and Blowers, see Brian Cuthbertson, The Old Attorney General: A Biography of Richard John Uniacke (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 1980), pp. 27-36.
The Supreme Court’s Opening Ceremonies, 1754
It was a day of pomp and ceremony designed to impress the citizens of Halifax, a frontier town barely five years old. On October 22, 1754, Jonathan Belcher, a lawyer newly arrived from England, presided over an elaborate ceremony to mark his installation as Nova Scotia’s first chief justice.
Local dignitaries and the colony’s half-dozen lawyers gathered that Monday morning outside the governor’s residence. Belcher, dressed in a scarlet robe with a grey wig spilling over his shoulders (the uniform of Britain’s high court judges), walked beside Governor Charles Lawrence over streets Belcher later noted were “not yet levell’d or paved.” The group proceeded to the Pontac tavern for “an elegant breakfast.” After dining, and after “a gathering of ladies, army officers and merchants tendered congratulations,” the procession reformed. Led by an official bearing a copy of Belcher’s commission for all to see, the group marched to St. Paul’s Church for a service intended to link the power of the court, and of the government, with the authority of the church.
The next stop was the courthouse, then located at the opposite end of the Grand Parade, which had been “very handsomely fitted up” for the occasion. Belcher, seated under a canopy with the governor at his right side, listened as his commission was read. When it was his turn to speak, he offered “a few directions for the guidance of (law) practitioners.” A grand jury was empaneled for the court’s inaugural sitting, and Belcher used his instructions to the jurors to stress respect for the law and the local government. The court’s establishment showed the King’s “Concern for the Rights and Liberties of his Loyal Subjects,” he said, urging the jurors to wield the “Sword of Justice” for the “protection of the innocent, and to the terror of the noxious and guilty.”
Court then adjourned for the day – the grand jury’s review of the ten criminal cases on the docket, and the subsequent trials, began the following week. As a finale to the ceremonies, the chief justice and his entourage reassembled for a parade back to Governor Lawrence’s residence.
For more information, see John Quinpool, First Things in Acadia (Halifax: First Things Publishers, 1936), pp. 239-40; Beamish Murdoch, A History of Nova Scotia, or Acadie (Halifax: James Barnes, 1865), vol. 2, pp. 250-1.
Wigs and Gowns
Those attending a Supreme Court session for the first time may be surprised to discover that the judge and lawyers dress in black gowns for trials and most hearings. The practice appears to date to about 1300, when a limited number of people were granted the right to practice before the English courts – wearing a robe or gown made them instantly recognizable as attorneys. Judges began donning long-hooded robes about the same time and eventually adopted gowns. One story holds that early judges favoured cape-like gowns so they could stay warm while riding on horseback from town to town to hold court.
While styles varied, today’s simple black gown became the standard attire after 1685, when it was first worn as a symbol of mourning for King Charles II. Gowns crossed the Atlantic along with the common law, and the handful of lawyers plying their trade in Nova Scotia when Jonathan Belcher arrived in 1754 wore gowns to ceremonies marking his swearing-in as chief justice. In portraits, Belcher and other early chief justices are decked out in flowing robes of scarlet trimmed in fur, which remains the style for judges of the Supreme Court of Canada. By 1900, Canadian judges and lawyers favoured wearing “tabs” – two strips of white linen – at the neck, a style that has persisted. While lawyers wear only black, a sash of coloured cloth distinguishes the rank of other judges. In Nova Scotia, Supreme Court judges wear a red sash on their gowns. Sashes of Court of Appeal and Provincial Court judges are black, while those of the judges of the Family Court are green – a colour chosen because it signifies life and Family Court judges protect the welfare of children and families.
The horsehair wigs long favoured by judges and lawyers in Britain and many Commonwealth countries originated in the seventeenth century, when it was the fashion for everyone of importance to wear them. Like gowns, they served to distinguish the wearer’s office and command respect. Wigs did not survive efforts to transplant them to the New World, however. Americans rejected them as they did many other trappings of British rule – Thomas Jefferson once complained that “monstrous wigs” made “the English judges look like rats peering through bunches of oakum (strands of rope).”
Nova Scotia’s early judges wore wigs. In official portraits that hang in the Halifax Law Courts, the first chief justice, Jonathan Belcher, and his successors Sir Thomas Andrew Strange and Sampson Salter Blowers all sport billowing wigs that hang to their chests. Jeremy Pemberton, who was chief justice in the late 1780s, Richard Bulkeley, a vice-admiralty judge of the same era, and Sir Alexander Croke, a vice-admiralty judge from 1801-1815, also wore wigs. R.B. Dickey once recalled that judges were still wearing wigs when he began practicing law in Amherst in 1834. Sir Brenton Halliburton, who replaced Blowers in 1833, was the first chief justice to be depicted bare-headed in his portrait, suggesting wigs were out of fashion in this province by the mid-nineteenth century. Judges in Upper Canada appear to have dispensed with wigs even earlier, due to their high cost and the discomfort to the wearer. It was not until 1905 that British Columbia passed a law banning wigs from its courtrooms.
Source: “Gowns,” article by Justice John deP. Wright of the Ontario Court of Justice (General Division).
For much of the Supreme Court’s history, a pair of white gloves served as a symbol of purity and a reflection of civic pride. If there were no criminal cases to be heard when a Supreme Court judge traveling on circuit came to town, the sheriff or other local official would signify the area’s crime-free status by formally presenting the judge with a pair of white gloves.
The practice originated in England, where sittings of the courts on circuit were known as assizes, and was adopted in Nova Scotia and beyond. Historian A.W.H. Eaton, writing in 1910, noted it was the custom for lawyers in Kings County to attend the court’s opening day and to present the visiting judge with a pair of white kid gloves when there were no criminal cases on the docket in Kentville. In neighbouring New Brunswick, the Saint John Daily Sun reported that the judge holding court in the city during the month of November 1888 had been given a pair of white gloves, “indicating that there was no criminal business to come before the court.”
The tradition appears to have survived into the 1970s (and possibly even longer) in some of the smaller centres where the Supreme Court holds sittings. Its demise may be a reflection of the times – as crime became more prevalent, even in rural areas, there were fewer occasions when the court’s docket was crime free.
Sources: A.W.H. Eaton, The History of Kings County (Belleville: Mike, 1972 – reprint of 1910 ed.), p. 231; Saint John Daily Sun, November 21, 1888, p. 2; Retired Chief Justice Lorne Clarke; Justice Jamie Saunders, Nova Scotia Court of Appeal.
Hardships and Hazards: The Early Years of the Supreme Court on Circuit
For its first two decades, the Supreme Court heard cases only in Halifax. But as the colony grew, so did demands for the court to hold trials in the new communities that were springing up in the Annapolis Valley, northern Nova Scotia and along the South Shore. The Supreme Court Circuit Act of 1774 established a circuit system, requiring the court to hold sessions twice a year in Annapolis, Kings and Cumberland counties. The circuit system grew as new areas were settled and when Cape Breton Island was annexed to the mainland in 1820, and by 1851 the court sat in all counties at least once a year.
Until 1834, two Supreme Court judges were required to travel each circuit unless a second judge was unavailable or ill (with the exception of a brief period, 1805-1809, when one-judge circuits were permitted). The province’s early roads were sometimes little more than rough tracks, making travel on horseback or by carriage slow and tedious. Circuits tended to run from May to October, with the winter weather and the spring thaw conspiring to restrict court sittings to Halifax for the rest of the year. Not surprisingly, some judges dreaded traveling on circuit. To Justice Thomas Chandler Haliburton, presiding outside the city was “severe labour.”
The Cape Breton circuit was the toughest – the island had so few roads in the early years that the authorities hired boats to ferry judges to and from court sessions. Justice William Blowers Bliss considered it “in the highest degree arduous and severe” to journey there. In 1825 Brenton Halliburton, who went on to become chief justice, returned from a Cape Breton stint and told a colleague that he wished the island were still a separate colony. The worst circuit horror story, however, belongs to Justice William DesBarres. In June 1854, the small sailboat carrying him across the Bras d’Or Lakes sank, leaving him clinging to the wreckage until help arrived. A Sydney lawyer accompanying him to court drowned in the incident.
Sources: Barry Cahill and Jim Phillips, “The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia: Origins to Confederation,” in Philip Girard, James Muir and Cahill, eds., The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia 1754-2004: From Imperial Bastion to Provincial Oracle (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004); Dean Jobb, Bluenose Justice: True Tales of Mischief, Mayhem and Murder (Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 1996), p. 73.
The Supreme Court’s Coat of Arms
The Royal Coat of Arms, a symbol of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, has graced a succession of Halifax courthouses since colonial times. Now displayed above the bench in the Court of Appeal’s 5th Floor courtroom at the Halifax Law Courts, it was almost lost forever during the court’s latest move.
The coat of arms depicts a crowned lion and a unicorn on either side of a shield, which is topped with the royal crown and bears the emblems of the components of the United Kingdom – three lions of England, the harp of Ireland and the Scottish lion. The shield is trimmed with the motto Honi soit qui mal y pense, which means Evil to him who evil thinks. Below the figures and shield is the motto of the sovereign, Dieu et mon droit – God and my right.
When the Supreme Court moved from the Spring Garden Road courthouse – its home since 1860 – to the Law Courts building on the waterfront in 1971, the arms apparently did not follow, at least for a few years. The old courthouse was renovated to house a provincial library and, in the process, the historic coat of arms was relegated to a storage room. Chief Justice Ian MacKeigan and a fellow judge of the court’s Appeal Division, Justice Gordon Cooper, reputedly rescued and refurbished the tattered emblem in the late 1970s or early 1980s, and restored it to its rightful place.
Source: Reminiscences set out in a memo of Justice Ted Flinn, dated April 8, 2001.
The Judges’ Affair
Less than forty years after the Supreme Court was established, the authority and credibility of its judges and judgments came under fire in a five-year political and legal struggle that came to be known was “The Judges Affair.”
It began when Chief Justice Bryan Finucane died in office in 1785. The British authorities were slow to name a replacement – Jeremy Pemberton was appointed chief in 1788 but presided over just one term of the court and resigned after 14 months. That left assistant judges Isaac Deschamps and James Brenton to carry the court’s workload. Deschamps, as senior judge, acted an interim chief justice even though he lacked legal training.
The tide of Loyalist refugees from the American colonies in the 1780s brought a number of lawyers to Halifax, men eager to re-establish their practices or fill a vacant judgeship. They viewed the undermanned and under-experienced Supreme Court with a mixture of jealousy, suspicion and contempt. Deschamps and Brenton were attacked as ignorant of the law and accused of bias, particularly for favouring Nova Scotian litigants over Loyalists.
The controversy spilled into the political arena and in November 1787 the House of Assembly voted to investigate the judges’ conduct. The matter was then referred to the governor and his council, but the council’s February 1788 response cleared the judges of charges of partiality and incompetence and labeled the assembly’s allegations “groundless and scandalous.”
The exoneration failed to quell the controversy. Loyalist lawyers Jonathan Sterns and William Taylor outlined their complaints in the press, prompting the judges to disbar both men for contempt of court. In 1790 the assembly conducted a second investigation and voted to impeach Deschamps and Brenton and demanded their dismissal for “high crimes and misdemeanours.” The Privy Council of the British government reviewed the allegations and finally put the matter to rest in 1792, clearing both judges and condemning their detractors. By then an English lawyer, Thomas Andrew Lumisden Strange, had been appointed chief justice, bringing legal expertise and stability to the court. In 1809 the assembly bolstered the court’s credibility by passing a law requiring its judges to have practiced law for at least ten years.
For more information on the Judges’ Affair, see Barry Cahill and Jim Phillips, “The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia: Origins to Confederation,” in Philip Girard, James Muir and Cahill, eds., The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia 1754-2004: From Imperial Bastion to Provincial Oracle (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004)
R. v. Cartcel: Halifax’s first murder trial, 1749
Halifax’s 2,500 settlers were still crowded aboard the ships that had brought them from England when the future Nova Scotia capital witnessed its first murder. It happened in a flash on August 26, 1749, during an altercation between crewmen from two vessels. Abraham Goodsides said something to Peter Cartcel, a Frenchman who apparently knew enough English to spot an insult. Cartcel drew a knife and stabbed Goodsides in the chest, killing him.
The killing posed a challenge for Governor Edward Cornwallis, the English colonel in charge of establishing Halifax. Empowered to “erect, constitute and establish such and as many courts” as necessary, he had followed the model used in the former capital of Annapolis Royal and named himself and six councillors as members of a “general court” to try cases. None of its members had legal training.
Cartcel – his surname is also rendered as Carsal and Carteel in surviving records – stood trial five days after the stabbing in one of the few buildings completed on shore, a warehouse. Canada’s first jury trial under British law was a speedy affair – four witnesses described the altercation and the jury deliberated half an hour before finding Cartcel guilty. He was hanged two days later.
Cornwallis’ superiors in London later praised his efforts, describing the trial as “very regular and proper” and suggesting it would “convince the settlers of the intention of conforming to the Laws and Constitution of the Mother Country in every point.” The exercise was clearly intended to send the message that law and order would prevail. Two centuries later, however, a chief justice of the Supreme Court, Joseph Chisholm, concluded the trial “fell far short of ideal justice.” Cartcel had no lawyer or advocate to challenge the case against him or to look out for his interests, and likely should have been convicted of the less-serious offence of manslaughter and escaped the gallows.
For more information on the Cartcel case, see Dean Jobb, “First Blood,” in Bluenose Justice: True Tales of Mischief, Mayhem and Murder (Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 1996), pp.135-40.
The Supreme Court’s First Term, Fall 1754
A week after Jonathan Belcher was sworn in as Nova Scotia’s chief justice amid ceremonies and parades, it was down to business. The Supreme Court’s first session, the Michaelmas Term of 1754, opened on Tuesday, October 29, 1754, in a courthouse at the corner of Buckingham and Argyle streets in Halifax. The grand jury convened to review criminal charges against 23 men and women and sent all but one – an accused murderer who had escaped from jail – to trial. Belcher ordered 12 of those indicted sent to the lower court for trial, a move designed to preserve the new Supreme Court for the most serious cases.
Of the accused persons that remained, a soldier and his wife were acquitted of robbery after the victim of the alleged crime failed to show up in court to prosecute. A servant, George Lease, stood trial for petty theft from his employer and a jury found him not guilty. Anne Westman, accused of grand theft for breaking into a widow’s home and stealing pewter dishes and linen, was also acquitted at trial. Juries were often reluctant to convict when even relatively minor crimes like theft could be punished by whipping, branding and, for repeat offenders, the death sentence. John Moor was not so lucky – he was convicted of stealing a dozen chickens and sentenced to have the letter “T” branded on his thumb, serving as proof of his criminal record should he reoffend.
The most serious trial lasted 10 hours – a length proceeding for the time – and involved murder charges against three crewmen from the Nancy and Sally, a New England sloop caught illegally trading with the French garrison at Fort Beausejour. A warship, HMS Vulture, had intercepted the vessel in the Bay of Fundy in July 1754, but the New Englanders had fired on the Vulture’s boarding party, killing two British sailors. The case raised thorny jurisdictional issues – there was a dispute over whether the offences had occurred at sea, making them a matter for an admiralty court, or close enough to shore to be a matter for the new Supreme Court. Belcher ruled his court was the proper forum. The jury found the crewmen guilty of the lesser offence of manslaughter – infuriating Belcher, who considered them traitors who had escaped “the just sentence of death.” He imposed the maximum punishment – a further nine months in jail – and, ironically, upon their release in July 1755 all three were forced to join the crew of a British man of war.
For more information on the Supreme court’s inaugural term, see James Muir and Jim Phillips, “Michaelmas Term 1754: The Supreme Court’s First Session,” in Philip Girard, Muir and Barry Cahill, eds., The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia 1754-2004: From Imperial Bastion to Provincial Oracle (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).
Slavery Rulings: Judges refuse to treat people as property
More than 10,000 persons of African descent came to Nova Scotia between the founding of Halifax in 1749 and 1816. Most arrived in the 1780s – with other Loyalists at the end of the American Revolution – or as refugees during the War of 1812. A small number came as slaves, and initially the courts sided with their owners. In 1791, for instance, a magistrate refused to convict an Argyle man accused of forcing a woman and her daughter into slavery.
But slavery in Nova Scotia met a premature end thanks to the efforts of two early chief justices, Thomas Andrew Lumisden Strange and Sampson Salter Blowers. Strange, an English lawyer named chief in 1789, had little time for the notion that one person could be the property of another. Slavery was still legal – it was not outlawed in the British Empire until 1833 – but he found a way to make the law work against slave owners.
Strange and Blowers, who was attorney general, often discussed how best to deal with the slavery issue. Strange favoured a cautious approach. Rather than declaring slavery illegal, and possibly provoking a political showdown or forcing the authorities in Britain to intervene, he “wished to wear out the claim (of slave owners) gradually,” Blowers recalled. When a litigant appeared before the Supreme Court seeking the return of a runaway slave, Strange required “the fullest proof of the master’s claim.” Since it was difficult for slave owners to produce such evidence, Blowers noted, “it was found generally very easy to succeed in favour of the Negro.”
Blowers shared Strange’s aversion to slavery and adopted a similar approach after succeeding him as chief justice in 1797. In one case, a runaway slave was arrested in Annapolis Royal but Blowers insisted on proof the “owner” had a legal right to buy the woman in the first place, and the claim for her return collapsed. As a result of “Blowers’ demands for the proof of its legality,” according to a biographer, “slavery died out relatively soon in the 19th century,” and in contrast to neighbouring New Brunswick, where the courts ruled that slavery was legal.
For more information, see “African Nova Scotians in the Age of Slavery and Abolition,” Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management website: https://novascotia.ca/nsarm/virtual/africanns/ch3.asp ; Entries in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography On-line for Sir Thomas Andrew Lumisden Strange: http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=37801 and Sampson Salter Blowers: http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=37377
R. v. Howe: Joe Howe’s fight for a free press, 1835
Feisty editor Joseph Howe had a reputation as a thorn in the side of the Halifax establishment, using his newspaper, The Novascotian, to attack those mismanaging city affairs. On January 1, 1835, he published an anonymous letter, signed “The People,” accusing the magistrates in charge of the police, poor asylum and other services of pocketing £1,000 a year at the expense of the “poor and distressed.” At the urging of the outraged magistrates, the attorney general charged Howe with criminal libel for “wickedly, maliciously and seditiously desiring and intending to stir up and excite discontent among His Majesty’s subjects.”
Lawyers told Howe his case was hopeless, since his rabble-rousing motives were clear and truth was not yet recognized as a defence to charges of libel. So Howe chose to represent himself and, for more than six hours at his March 1835 Supreme Court trial, he regaled the jury with fresh allegations of corruption. The magistrate running the city prison, for instance, stored vegetables in the cells and forced inmates to make shoes for his family. Howe appealed to the jurors “to leave an unshackled press as a legacy to your children.” Despite Chief Justice Brenton Halliburton’s blunt direction to the jurors that Howe was guilty as charged, they returned in ten minutes with an acquittal. Howe and his supporters paraded through the streets in triumph; six magistrates promptly resigned in disgrace.
In the next edition of The Novascotian, Howe declared that “the press of Nova Scotia is free.” One scholar, Wilfred Kesterton, hailed the verdict as “the most momentous freedom-of-the-press precedent” in early Canadian journalism. But the press in Canada was not yet free from the spectre of prosecution for attacking those in power. Editors continued to be prosecuted and it would be years before Canadian juries, like those in Britain and the United States, were allowed to decide whether a statement was libelous. In the meantime, as Howe’s trial made clear, juries could protect dissenters and critics by taking the law into their own hands.
For more information about Howe’s trial, see Dean Jobb, Bluenose Justice: True Tales of Mischief, Mayhem and Murder (Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 1996), pp. 23-30; and J. Murray Beck, Politics of Nova Scotia,1701-1896, vol. 1 (Tantallon, N.S.: Four East Publications, 1985), pp. 109-10.
The Trial of the Saladin Pirates, 1844
When the Saladin ran aground in May 1844 at Country Harbour, on the Eastern Shore, it brought with it one of the bloodiest crimes ever recorded on the high seas. There were only six men on board, too few to handle the 550-ton square-rigger, and their explanation – that the captain and others had died at sea – was suspicious. The crew was arrested and taken to Halifax, where a dark tale of murder and piracy soon emerged.
Two men, William Carr and John Galloway, accused the other four of murdering Captain Alexander McKenzie and five other crewmen somewhere off the coast of South America. The mutineers were looking for a secluded cove in Newfoundland or the Gaspé where they could unload copper, silver and other valuables on board when they washed ashore in Nova Scotia.
The ringleader had been another captain, George Fielding, who was on board as a passenger after losing his own vessel in a botched smuggling scheme. Fielding had recruited four crewmen – John Hazelton, William Travaskiss, Charles Anderson and George Jones – and on the night of April 13 they had used axes and other ship’s tools to kill McKenzie and five others. Carr and Galloway were spared, but also had blood on their hands. The mutineers soon discovered that Fielding had built a cache of weapons and was plotting another night of killing to fatten his share of the loot. They turned on him within days, and forced Carr and Galloway to toss Fielding overboard. Fielding’s teenage son, who was traveling with his father, suffered the same fate.
The story of what happened on the Saladin – not one, but two mutinies – emerged from a series of confessions in which each crewman downplayed his own role and blamed the others. When the case went to trial before the Supreme Court in Halifax in July, Attorney General James W. Johnston told the jury that “one tenth of what these men did would constitute the crime of piracy.” The defence stressed evidence that at least some of the men killed out of fear for their own lives, but Chief Justice Brenton Halliburton declared there was no legal justification for their actions. The jury deliberated just 15 minutes before convicting Hazelton, Travaskiss, Anderson and Jones. Carr and Galloway stood trial separately and were acquitted.
The convicted pirates were hanged on July 30, 1844. It was the last public execution in Halifax and hundreds turned out, bringing their children along to witness the consequences of breaking the law. A gallows was erected on the South Common – now the site of Victoria General Hospital – and the condemned men arrived in a prison wagon ringed by soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets. P.H. Lenior, who was ten at the time, recalled the scene: “Each man had a coil of rope round his arm, the other end of which was knotted around his neck .... White hoods were pulled over their faces. The next moment four bodies shot into the air and continued to dangle there. Never have I forgotten the sight.”
Source: “The Saladin Pirates,” in Dean Jobb, Crime Wave: Con Men, Rogues and Scoundrels from Nova Scotia’s Past (Lawrencetown, N.S.: Pottersfield Press, 1991), pp. 134-44
Halifax Explosion Manslaughter Cases, 1918
Benjamin Russell, a 68-year-old Supreme Court judge, was getting dressed on the morning of December 6, 1917 when a massive explosion shook the Halifax home where he rented a room. His fellow tenants, convinced they were being bombed by German airplanes, fled to the basement but Russell went to the door and watched as “a gently curving column of fire, of all the colors that fire can assume,” rose over the city’s north end. Russell spent the following days helping to care for homeless children and arranged for clothing and other relief supplies to be stored in the hallways of the Spring Garden Road courthouse. But Russell’s biggest contribution in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion would be made in the courtroom.
The explosion, triggered when the freighter Imo and the munitions ship Mont Blanc collided in the harbour, was the world’s largest pre-atomic blast, leaving almost 2,000 dead, another 9,000 maimed or injured, and flattening huge swaths of the city. An inquiry convened with days and its commissioner, Justice Arthur Drysdale of the Supreme Court, ruled the Mont Blanc had caused the collision. In response to Drysdale’s criticisms and the local newspapers’ demands for vengeance, manslaughter charged were filed against three men – Aime Le Medec, the Mont Blanc’s captain; Frank Mackey, a local pilot who guided the ship into the harbour; and Commander Frederick Evans Wyatt, the official responsible for overseeing harbour traffic.
The defence applied to the supreme Court to release Mackey and Le Medec, and Russell ruled there was no evidence to support criminal charges, despite the findings of his colleague Drysdale. In his view, the Imo was at fault and Mackey had taken “every possible care to prevent the collision.” Russell later wrote in his memoirs that a person should not be convicted of manslaughter for doing “what was best in his judgment to prevent an impending accident even if, in spite of his best efforts, the struggle was unsuccessful.”
When Wyatt’s case came before a grand jury for review in March 1918, Russell again appealed for Haligonians to stop looking for scapegoats. “When a great calamity such as that which has visited this city occurs,” he declared, “there is a very natural and pardonable disposition ... to demand vengeance and seek to hold somebody criminally responsible.” Despite his instructions that the evidence “fell short of the requirements for an indictment for manslaughter,” Wyatt was ordered to stand trial. Russell presided over the trial and repeated his assertion that “nothing in the eyes of the law” justified a manslaughter charge. This time a jury listened and acquitted Wyatt.
The owners of the two vessels sued each other for damages but fought to a draw. Drysdale, despite his obvious bias, was on the bench for the civil trial and again found the Mont Blanc to blame. He awarded $2 million to the Imo’s owners, but the Supreme Court of Canada and the Judicial Committee of Britain’s Privy Council – then Canada’s final court of appeal – overturned the award and found the ships equally liable for the collision.
For more information on this case, see Dean Jobb, “Assigning the Blame,” in Crime Wave: Con-Men, Rogues and Scoundrels from Nova Scotia’s Past (Lawrencetown Beach, N.S.: Pottersfield Press, 1991), pp. 57-66; Benjamin Russell, Autobiography (Halifax: Royal Print and Litho, 1932), pp. 264-73.
R. v. McLachlan: A labour leader stands trial for sedition, 1923
J.B. McLachlan is the greatest labour leader Nova Scotia has ever produced. Scottish-born, he came to Cape Breton in 1902 to work in the coal mines and by the 1920s was the champion of miners and steelworkers fighting the British Empire Steel Corp. for a decent wages and living conditions.
The government of the day openly sided with Besco and its hard-nosed president, Roy Wolvin, sending in troop and provincial police to intimidate strikers. In July 1923, with the steel plant shut down by a walkout, mounted policemen swept through the adjacent town of Whitney Pier, assaulting residents as they returned home from church. The incident brought out McLachlan’s radical rhetoric, and he circulated a notice urging other mining unions to walk out in support. Branding the Nova Scotia government “the guilty and responsible party” for the attack, he called on his fellow unionists “to spread the fight against (Premier) Armstrong to every mine in Nova Scotia.”
McLachlan paid dearly for those words. “Fighting Jim,” as he was known in the press, was convicted in December 1923 of three counts of sedition – unlawfully inciting public disorder or promoting hatred of the government. It was little more than a show trial: Attorney General Walter J. O’Hearn, who prosecuted, insisted on a Halifax trial for fear sympathetic Cape Breton jurors would acquit someone with the courage to champion their cause. In his instructions to the jury, Justice Humphrey Mellish of the Supreme Court, a former coal company lawyer, could barely disguise his distaste for McLachlan and the Marxist ideals he espoused. Legal historian Barry Cahill has labeled it a “gross miscarriage of justice.”
McLachlan’s lawyers managed to have one count dismissed on appeal – the charge of publishing seditious material in Halifax, since it had emerged at trial that a Besco official had leaked the notice to the Halifax newspapers. He was sentenced to two years in prison but paroled after serving less than five months. His death in 1937, when he was in his late 60s, was blamed on a lung ailment picked up while confined to the damp cells of Dorchester Penitentiary.
For more information on J.B. McLachlan’s trial, see David Frank, J.B. McLachlan: A Biography (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1999), chapter 8; Barry Cahill, “Howe (1835), Dixon (1920) and McLachlan (1923): Comparative Perspectives on the Legal History of Sedition,” University of New Brunswick Law Journal, vol. 45 (1996), pp. 281-307.
R. v. Farmer: Nova Scotia’s last hanging for murder, 1937
Everett Farmer always claimed he shot his half-brother Zachariah in self defence. The crime occurred in Farmer’s kitchen in the summer of 1937 over a keg of home-brewed beer. An argument erupted, Zach threatened to kill Everett, and Everett claimed he loaded his shotgun and fired to protect himself and his family.
Farmer was tried for murder in September 1937. Poor and black, with eight children under the age of 15, he had no money to pay legal fees but the province appointed one of the area’s leading lawyers to handle his defence – Vincent Pottier, who went on to become the first Acadian to serve on the Supreme Court. Pottier had little time to prepare his case and there was evidence Zach was sitting in a chair when shot, casting doubt on Farmer’s claims his own life had been in danger. The jury convicted him of murder and Justice William Carroll imposed the death sentence.
Studies of capital punishment in Canada and the United States have found that those condemned to death tend to be poor or members of minority groups. This trend, however, was less pronounced in Nova Scotia in the 1930s. Of the six whites convicted of murder during the decade, four were executed and two had their sentences commuted to life in prison; two other blacks were convicted of murder, but only one was hanged. The federal cabinet, which decided whether a condemned person’s life would be spared, reviewed Farmer’s case but voted to allow justice to take its course. Farmer was hanged in the Shelburne courthouse on December 14, 1937, the last person executed in Nova Scotia.
Source: Dean Jobb, “‘Life Was Cheap Then’: The King v. Farmer, 1937,” in Shades of Justice: Seven Nova Scotia Murder Cases (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 1988), pp. 95-114.
The Ordeal of Donald Marshall Jr., 1971-1990
In 1971 a young Mi’kmaq named Donald Marshall Jr. was convicted of stabbing another teenager, Sandy Seale, to death in a Sydney park. He served 11 years in prison before mounting evidence of his innocence prompted his release and a decade-long review of his case that would reshape Nova Scotia’s criminal justice system.
Marshall was released on bail in 1982 and the federal justice minister of the day, Jean Chretien, referred the case to the Appeal Division of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court for a rehearing. The court issued a 1983 ruling that acquitted Marshall but absolved the police, Crown prosecutors and courts of blame. The court declared that any miscarriage of justice was “more apparent than real” and suggested Marshall would have been spared his ordeal if he had cooperated with the original police investigation.
Another Sydney man, Roy Ebsary, was later convicted of manslaughter in Seale’s death. But controversy over the handling of the case refused to die and forced the Nova Scotia government to establish a royal commission, headed by three out-of-province judges, to investigate. Public hearings held in Sydney and Halifax in the late 1980s showed Marshall had been a victim of prejudice and that evidence exonerating him of the crime had been suppressed. The hearings also exposed political interference in later police investigations of politicians.
The Marshall Commission’s report, released in 1990, found clear evidence that systemic racism and political influence had tainted the province’s criminal justice system. Its far-reaching recommendations included steps to bring more members of visible minorities into the ranks of the police, the legal profession and the judiciary. To insulate future prosecutions from political interference, Nova Scotia’s police forces were given the power to decide whether to file charges and a Public Prosecution Service was established that operates independently of government. Crown attorneys across the country are now required to disclose to defendants all evidence in the prosecution’s hands, including information that may help establish the person’s innocence. Efforts to create a more representative justice system, however, remain in progress. Despite the establishment of a program to encourage blacks and Mi’kmaq to attend Dalhousie Law School, both minorities remain under-represented in the legal profession and among the province’s judiciary.
Source: Michael Harris, Justice Denied: The Law Versus Donald Marshall (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1986).
Nova Scotia (Attorney General) v. MacIntyre: Public access to the courts, 1982
Linden MacIntyre was a CBC television reporter based in Halifax in the early 1980s when he sought access to search warrants the RCMP had used to seize political party finance records – part of an investigation that would see two Liberal fundraisers convicted of influence peddling. When court officials refused to disclose the documents, MacIntyre – now a correspondent for CBC’s investigative program The Fifth Estate – applied to the Supreme Court for an order making them public.
Justice Peter Richard ruled that warrants and records related to completed searches were public documents and must be released. The court’s Appeal Division upheld the ruling and went further, ruling that the records of all searches should be open to scrutiny and members of the public were entitled to be present in court when a warrant was issued.
The ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in January 1982 that search warrant records are public documents, but only after a search has been conducted and only if evidence has been seized. Hearings to issue search warrants, however, must be held in private to ensure those about to be searched do not have a chance to hide or destroy evidence. These provisions were later incorporated into the Criminal Code, which gives judges the power to seal search warrants if their release would jeopardize an investigation or expose the identity of a confidential police informant.
The MacIntyre ruling is a landmark, confirming the wider principle that proceedings in Canada’s courts – with few exceptions – are conducted in the presence of journalists and the public. “At every stage the rule should be one of public accessibility and concomitant judicial accountability,” Justice Brian Dickson (who later became chief justice) wrote in the majority ruling. Public access should be curtailed rarely and only “to protect social values of superordinate importance,” he added, including the rights of innocent parties. Dickson’s reasoning continues to be cited whenever a dispute arises over access to court documents or hearings.
For more information on this case, see the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling: Nova Scotia (Attorney General) v. MacIntyre,  1 S.C.R. 175.
R. v. Marshall: Native fishing rights established, 1999
Donald Marshall Jr., the man whose wrongful murder conviction shook the foundations of Nova Scotia’s justice system, was also at the centre of a landmark ruling on native fishing rights in the Maritime provinces. In August 1993, Marshall was charged with illegally fishing for eels in Pomquet Harbour, Antigonish County. Marshall admitted catching and selling 463 pounds of eels out of season, but claimed he was exempt from federal fisheries regulations by treaties the Mi’kmaq people had signed with the British in 1760-61.
A provincial court judge rejected that argument at trial and Nova Scotia’s Court of Appeal also found that no treaty rights had been violated. The case went before the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in September 1999 that the 240-year-old treaties gave Marshall and other Mi’kmaq the right to fish in order to make a “moderate livelihood,” subject to federal regulation.
The ruling created chaos in the East Coast fishery and prompted clashes between licenced fishermen and natives eager to exercise their new-found right to fish. Violence erupted at Burnt Church, New Brunswick, where non-native fishermen destroyed lobster traps and gear belonging to natives. In response, the Supreme Court of Canada took the unprecedented step in November 1999 of issuing a clarification to its ruling, stressing that Ottawa and provincial governments have the authority to regulate native access to the fishery to conserve fish stocks and ensure licences are allocated fairly to natives and non-natives. As a result, most Mi’kmaq bands in Atlantic Canada have reached agreements with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to establish a native fishery.
For more information on this case, see the Supreme Court of Canada’s rulings. R. v. Marshall,  3 S.C.R. 533, available online at: http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/en/nav.do, R. v. Marshall,  3 S.C.R. 456, available online at: http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/en/nav.do
Doucet-Boudreau v. Nova Scotia (Minister of Education): Judicial oversight of Charter rights, 2003
A Nova Scotia court battle over French-language education rights has become a leading Supreme Court of Canada precedent that explores the limits of judicial power and whether courts have the right to monitor government compliance with their rulings.
The case began in June 2000 when Justice Arthur LeBlanc of Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court found that there were enough minority-language parents in five areas of the Province – Clare, Argyle, Kingston-Greenwood, Arichat and Cheticamp – to justify the creation of French-language schools, as provided under Section 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He ordered Nova Scotia’s Department of Education and Le Conseil Scolaire Acadian Provincial, the agency established to provide French-language education programs, to make “best efforts” to establish the five schools by September 2001.
The provincial government accepted the judgment but appealed Justice LeBlanc’s requirement that education officials return to court to report on their progress in building the schools. The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal overturned the ruling, with two of three judges ruling that courts do not have the power to order such follow-up hearings.
A group of Acadian parents appealed and, in November 2003, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a 5-4 judgment that reinstated Justice LeBlanc’s ruling and revealed deep divisions within the court. Writing for the majority, Justices Frank Iacobucci and Louise Arbour said while such supervision was not justified in all cases, Justice LeBlanc’s “creative” approach had breathed life into the Charter’s educational rights in an “urgent context of ongoing cultural erosion.” The dissent, co-written by justices Louis LeBel and Marie Deschamps, warned that such incursions into the bureaucratic and political arenas could upset the separation of powers between courts, legislatures and the executive branch of government. The minority said “an attitude of restraint” was justified, given Canada’s “tradition of compliance by governments and public servants with judicial interpretations of the law and court orders.”
For more information on this case, see the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling, Doucet-Boudreau v. Nova Scotia (Minister of Education),  3 S.C.R. 3, available online at : http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/en/nav.do
Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
Halifax Chronicle Herald
Internet Library of Early Journals
Multicultural Trails of Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management
Nova Scotia Barristers Society
Nova Scotia Department of Tourism, Culture and Heritage
The 250th Anniversary of the Supreme Court Committee, Chaired by Mr. George Cooper, expresses its thanks to the following people who contributed to the construction of this web site:
Mr. Dean Jobb – researched and wrote the substantive content of the site. Freelance writer Dean Jobb teaches media law and investigative journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax.
Ms. Terri Harlow - constructed the information architecture, the functionality and design of the site. Terri Harlow is the principal of Alumena Designs, a visual communication company.
Ms. Lynne Reed – researched, verified and sourced all illustrations, graphics and background information. Lynne Reed, now retired, was the Executive Director, Administrative Office of the Trial Court, Massachusetts.
Mr. Justice Joel Fichaud – reviewed the text and provided input on site content and structure.
Professor Phil Girard – provided substantive background content and helped verify the accuracy of the site. Phil Girard is a Professor of Law, History and Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University.
Mr. Barry Cahill – provided advice, helped source content and verified the accuracy of certain data. Barry Cahill is senior archivist, Government Archives at Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management.
Mr. John Macleod – helped source material for the virtual archive. John Macleod is archivist, Government Archives, at Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management.
Mr. Jay McCurdy - took the photos of the judges' portraits. Jay McCurdy is a software engineer at IT Interactive Services Inc. and an amateur photographer.
Mr. Peter Landry – made his vast collection of historical writings available to the committee. Pete Landry is a lawyer and has developed interests in the areas of history, philosophy and economics.
Mr. Dene Rossouw – served as the committee’s technical advisor, editor and consultant in all phases of its work. Dene Rossouw is a Communications Advisor in the Executive Office of the Nova Scotia Judiciary.
The Committee extends a special tribute to Madam Justice Nancy Bateman, Chair of the Nova Scotia Courts web site committee, for her continuous support for projects that help to make the role of Canada’s judiciary understandable to a wider audience.
Funding for this project was provided by the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society and the Department of Justice.
Any legal information in the resource materials is intended for general educational purposes and should not form the basis of legal advice of any kind.
The contents of this site may be reproduced for educational, non-commercial purposes.
The 250 th Anniversary of the Supreme Court history web site was produced by a sub-committee consisting of the following members:
Mr. Dean Jobb
Ms. Terri Harlow
Ms. Lynne Reed
Mr. Justice Joel Fichaud
Prof. Phil Girard
Mr. Barry Cahill
Mr. Dene Rossouw
Mr. Pete Landry
© 2004 The Courts of Nova Scotia
Portraits of the Chief Justices: All portraits owned by Nova Scotia Barristers Society and used with permission.
Archive Volume 1 and Volume 2: Illustrations courtesy Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management. Used by permission.
Map of Chebucto Harbour and Town of Halifax (“Porcupine Map” of Nova Scotia): Internet Library of Early Journals (ILEJ) – www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/: The map appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 20, February 1750
Nova Scotia Assembly(met first in 1758 in Halifax Court House) By Charles Walter Simpson, Library and Archives Canada, C-019355
Sketch of Dalhousie Law School and photograph of James Robinson Johnston appear on Dalhousie Website: www.dal.ca/jrjchair
Thomas Chandler Halliburton , Nova Scotia Archives, NA CC 40887
The Coming of the Loyalists 1783, by Henry Sandham, Library and Archives of Canada, Acc. No. 1996-282-7.
Richard John Uniacke – Nova Scotia Museum image (from Uniacke House Estate Museum website of the NS Museum: http://museum.gov.ns.ca, and
Richard John Uniacke, Jr. – Photograph of miniature by Robert Field on display at Uniacke House Estate Museum
Hon. John William Ritchie, Q.C. (Senator), April 1868, Library and Archives of Canada, PA - 02526
The Governor’s House and St. Mather’s Meeting House, Halifax, 1759: Engraving by Richard Short, NSARM neg. no. 4215
“The Clockmaker” by Sam Slick , Thomas Chandler Halliburton photograph of frontispiece
The Trial of Joseph Howe photograph of the plaque on his statue located at Province House, Halifax, Nova Scotia; photograph of Howe, Library and Archives of Canada -PA25465
“Phillis”: Source: Nova Scotia Archives website: https://novascotia.ca/nsarm/virtual/africanns/archives.asp?ID=17
WIGS - copied from on-line UK catalogue
Map of Canada at Confederation: http://atlas.gc.ca/site/english/index.html (Canadian Department of Natural Resources)
The Supreme Court and Nova Scotia Legal History:
Philip Girard, James Muir and Barry Cahill, eds., The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia 1754-2004: From Imperial Bastion to Provincial Oracle (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).
Philip Girard and Jim Phillips, eds., Essays in the History of Canadian Law: Vol. III, Nova Scotia (Toronto: The Osgoode Society, 1990)
Peter Waite, Sandra Oxner and Thomas Barnes, eds., Law in a Colonial Society: The Nova Scotia Experience (Toronto: The Carswell Company Ltd., 1984)
Sir Joseph A. Chisholm, “Our first common law court,” Dalhousie Review, vol. 1 (April 1921), pp. 17-24.
Beamish Murdoch, A History of Nova Scotia, or Acadie, 3 vols., (Halifax: James Barnes, 1865-67)
Thomas Chandler Haliburton, An historical and statistical account of Nova-Scotia in two volumes (Halifax: Joseph Howe, 1829)
Sir Charles J. Townshend, History of the Court of Chancery in Nova Scotia (Toronto: Carswell Co., 1900)
Sir Charles J. Townshend, “History of the Courts of Chancery in Nova Scotia,” Canadian Law Times, vol. 20, (1900), pp. 14-21, 37-42, 75-80, 105-17.
Sir Charles J. Townshend, “Historical account of the Courts of Judicature in Nova Scotia,” Canadian Law Times, vol. 19 (1899), pp. 25-37, 58-72, 87-98, 142-57.
Biographies of Chief Justices and Prominent Nova Scotia Judges, Lawyers and Politicians:
The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia and Its Judges: 1754-1978 (Halifax: Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, 1978).
Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online : http://www.biographi.ca/EN/
W. Stewart Wallace, The Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Toronto: Macmillan, 1973)
Shirley B. Elliott, ed., The Legislative Assembly of Nova Scotia, 1758-1983: A Biographical Directory (Halifax: Province of Nova Scotia, 1984)
Canadian Who’s Who 1997 online: http://www.utpress.utoronto.ca/cgi bin/cw2w3.cgi
Barry Cahill, “The Career of Chief Justice Bryan Finucane,” Nova Scotia Historical Society Collections, vol. 42 (1986), pp. 153-69.
Sir Joseph A. Chisholm, “Three Chief Justices of Nova Scotia,” Nova Scotia Historical Society Collections, vol. 28 (1949), pp. 148-58.
Sir Joseph A. Chisholm, “Sir Thomas Strange, C.J.,” Canadian Bar Review, vol. 24 (1946), pp. 600-603.
R.E. Inglis, “Sketches of Two Chief Justices of Nova Scotia, Sir Charles Townshend, Robert E. Harris,” Nova Scotia Historical Society Collections, vol. 39 (1977), pp. 107-19.
Sir Charles J. Townshend, “The Honorable James McDonald,” Nova Scotia Historical Society Collections, vol. 20 (1921), pp. 139-53.
Sir Charles J. Townshend, “Jonathan Belcher, first chief justice of Nova Scotia,” Nova Scotia Historical Society Collections, vol. 18 (1914), pp. 25-57.
Sir Joseph A. Chisholm, “Hon. Charles Morris: A Lay Chief Justice,” Canadian Bar Review, vol. 26 (1948), pp. 1090-2.
Sir Charles J. Townshend, “Memoir of the life of the Honorable William Blowers Bliss,” Nova Scotia Historical Society Collections, vol. 17 (1913), pp. 23-45.
Benjamin Russell, Autobiography of Benjamin Russell (Halifax: Royal Print and Litho Ltd., 1932)
Benjamin Russell, “Reminiscences of the Nova Scotia Judiciary” Dalhousie Review, vol. 5 (January 1926) pp. 499-512.
Charles St. C. Stayner, “John William Ritchie: One of the Fathers of Confederation,” Nova Scotia Historical Society Collections, vol. 36 (1968), pp. 180-277.
Barry Cahill, “The ‘Colored Barrister’: The Short Life and Tragic Death of James Robinson Johnston, 1876-1915,” Dalhousie Law Journal, vol. 15, no. 2 (Fall 1992), pp. 336-79.
Brian Cuthbertson, The Old Attorney General: A Biography of Richard John Uniacke (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 1980)
Nova Scotia Courthouses:
C.A. Hale, “Early Court Houses of the Maritime Provinces,” in Margaret Carter, comp., Early Canadian Court Houses (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1983), pp. 37-77;
C.A. Hale, The Early Court Houses of Nova Scotia, vols. 1 and 2, Manuscript Report No. 293, (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1977)
South Shore, Seasoned Timbers , vol. 2: Some Historic Buildings from Nova Scotia’s South Shore (Halifax: Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, 1974)
Famous Cases and Legal Milestones:
Dean Jobb, Shades of Justice: Seven Nova Scotia Murder Cases (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 1988).
Dean Jobb, Crime Wave: Con Men, Rogues and Scoundrels from Nova Scotia’s Past (Lawrencetown, N.S.: Pottersfield Press, 1991)
Dean Jobb, Bluenose Justice: True Tales of Mischief, Mayhem and Murder (Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 1996)
J. Murray Beck, Politics of Nova Scotia,1701-1896, vol. 1 (Tantallon, N.S.: Four East Publications, 1985)
Michael Harris, Justice Denied: The Law Versus Donald Marshall (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1986).
John Quinpool, First Things in Acadia (Halifax: First Things Publishers, 1936)
John Willis, A History of Dalhousie Law School (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979)