Timeline History of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court

Annapolis County 18371721 – 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.

Porcupine Map of Halifax, 1749.1749 – 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.

Jonathan Belcher1754 – 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.

1809The 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.

Map of Confederation1867 – 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.

Frances Fish signature on Bar Admissions documents 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.

1969Nova Scotia Reports resumed publication.

The Law Courts, Halifax, NS1971 – 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 Chief Justice GlubeCourt 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.