The Labrador Boundary

Privy Council Documents

Volume IV


The governor holds a court.

Courts of vice-admiralty and session.

The governors cease to hold courts.

Court of common please instituted.

Justices appointed.

Complaints against it.

p. 1902

great west-country merchant. This bias must have been a strong impediment to the equal administration of justice in the hands of the fishing admirals. Besides this which arose from their employment and connection, there was another disqualification, that was to be corrected by no integrity or fairness whatsoever. It should seem, that persons, educated as masters of merchant ships, could not in general possess that discrimination and discernment, which was necessary for determining right and property, even in fishing stages and flakes.

        Such being the judicature established by the statute of King William, and such the hands in which it was lodged, we have found, that it was executed fully as ill as could from the nature of it be expected. We find that the admirals were most of their time out on the fishery ; that, when in harbour, they were still employed about curing of their fish, and the other parts of their business ; that the commanders of the king's ships were obliged to summon, enjoin, and enforce them to hold courts ; that discovering the sluggishness of the admirals, they were under the necessity of taking liberties not given by the statute ; that, being only a court of appeal, they were obliged to erect themselves into an original court. This they did by degrees, and with a sort of deference to the provisions of the act of parliament. At first they got the admirals to sit with them ; and I have seen many judgments and proceedings to which the comander of some of the king's ships has first subscribed his name, and the admirals have added theirs. It is not to be wondered, that the commanders of the king's ships, with their superior endowments, should gradually obtain an ascendancy ; and having thus blended their appellate jurisdiction with the original one lodged in the admirals, should at length wholly dispense with their attendance of the fishing admirals (who would be glad enough to be excused), and so in time succeed to a complete original exercise of judicial authority in the place of the admirals.

        So indeed it happened. But there were not wanting occasions, when the admirals awaked from their lethargy, and shewed a steadiness in asserting the dormant powers lodged in them by the statute. These were when the adventurers and merchants perceived the government at home were making any attempt to introduce a better system of law and order into Newfoundland. Accordingly, we have seen, that upon the appointment of a civil governor and justices, in the year 1729, the admirals bestirred themselves ; and, from the impulse which the competition inspired for the moment, they actually took upon them all the authority they possessed under the statute. They even went further, and claimed a criminal as well as a civil judicature ; and proceeded to issue warrants, and do acts which belong to justices of the peace. In these usurpations they were supported by the western merchants, whose language it was to represent the provisions of Stat. 10 and 11 Will. 3. as competent to the complete government of the island in all matters, both civil and criminal.

        But with all this support, so limited a power, lodged in such feeble hands, could not sustain the contest; and the admirals soon fell back into the inac-

p. 1903

tivity, neglect, and contempt, where they had before slumbered. As they sunk, the commanders of the king's ships rose into importance ; the statute of William grew to be looked upon as a dead letter ; and the administration of justice, in all the points there conferred on the admirals, was expected from nobody but the commanders of the king's ships, when they came to the island in the summer season.

        Although the hearing of certain matters, by way of appeal, was given to the commanders by the statute, yet the hearing of them originally was not authorized. The possession of the former gave a colour for assuming the latter ; and crude as this may seem, it was, perhaps, as well warranted as some of the instances of jurisdiction now exercised, and from long usage allowed to the first courts in Westminster-hall. When the captains were in possession of this, they proceeded, as happens mostly in the exercise of power and authority ; they found in that place, as it is elsewhere, that all judges have the quality which is invariably supposed to belong to the best, that of enlarging the sphere of their cognizance : and we find very soon, that the captains of ships took cognizance of debts contracted ; and held courts, in which they enquired of, heard, and determined all possible causes of complaints ; and with no other lights than those furnished by the statute of William, the instructions from the governor, and the suggestions of their own good sense ; paying always a due regard to the; customs and usages of the country. They did every thing, that the fishing admirals might do, and every thing the admirals had at different times pretended to have a right to do. From their situation, and the support they received from the governor, they were enabled to maintain the jurisdiction they had assumed. The governor conferred on them the title of surrogates, an idea taken from the admiralty-law ; to which, and which alone the naval governors were in the habit of looking, and under which it had long been a notion, that the fishery, as an admiralty concern, ought to be regulated. A surrogate is well known in Newfoundland, as legally deputed by the governor, to act as his deputy. Under this character the authority of the governor was exercised very beneficially. The time of surrogating was looked forward to as a season when all wrongs were to be redressed against all oppressors ; and this naval judicature was flown to by the poor inhabitants and planters, as the only refuge they had from the west country merchants, who were always their creditors, and were generally regarded as their oppressors.

       While the surrogates in the different parts of the island were administering justice in this manner, the governor had also his court at St. Johns ; and, it is easy to believe, that every thing which the surrogates permitted to themselves, the governor thought himself equally entitled to do and command. Every matter, civil, and criminal, used to be heard, and determined in open court before the governor. Where no special direction was pointed out by law, a person in that situation was to be commended for striking out such course as the exigency of the situation, and the good of the place required. This desire of doing good sometimes carried the governors further than strict legal propriety could warrant. They used to preside in the sessions of justices, although

p. 1904

it was from their authority that the commission of the justices issued. It would be endless and unnecessary to enter into the instances of irregularity that must follow, when judicatures were instituted in such a place as this, by persons who had nothing for their guide but the rectitude of their intentions, and a very honourable disposition.

        In the year 1765, a custom-house being established at St. John's, a court of vice-admiralty, (the court of revenue in the plantations) was placed there. This court, in the absence of the governor, during the winter, had entertained complaints in other matters than those peculiarly belonging to it. In this it only followed the example of the court of sessions, where the justices had allowed the hearing of matters of debt, and other subjects of difference of a civil nature. It was in consequence of this usage, that the parliament afterwards conferred on the court of vice-admiralty, and the session, a jurisdiction of a civil nature. By Stat. 15, Geo. 3, c. 32. they have authority to determine disputes concerning the wages of seamen and fishermen, and the offences committed by their hirers and employers against that act. This jurisdiction was taken from the court of vice-admiralty, by Stat. 26, Geo. 3, c. 26, owing to the unfavourable impressions that had been made respecting the practice which had prevailed in that court.

        Although the parliament took away from the vice-admiralty court the authority vested in it by law, it still continued to exercise that which no law had conferred on it ; and both that court and the sessions were resorted to in the absence of the governor and surrogates, for the administration of justice in all civil cases whatsoever. Justice administered under such circumstances could have but little of the authority and effect, which should attend upon the sentence of a court. There was no doubt in the minds of any, above the very lowest class, but the whole of this judicature was an usurpation : it was, therefore, more frequently employed as an engine of authority, to obtain that by a course of law, which could not, perhaps, be attained by open violence, than as the means of protecting the weak against the powerful. A merchant rather chose to have the assistance of the court of session or admiralty, to attach and seize the effects of his debtor, than incur the odium of taking them with force. The appearance of a legal course was preferable. But should a wealthy merchant become defendant in one of these courts, it was not so sure that he would approve the same legal course, or yield the same obedience to a sentence. He, as well as the court knew, there was no legal authority to compel ; and it was a question of prudence only, whether such a defendant would submit quietly to their order. If the court happened to have in it persons who acted with vigour, and had character and influence sufficient to cause its decrees to be duly executed ; it would, in such case, be but a bad prospect for a merchant to look for redress by an action, to be brought in England. against a man who, perhaps, never might make a visit there. Such considerations might operate with the merchants to obey these courts, even when they decided against them. Besides, a merchant might think it for his advantage to yield, in one instance, to a court, which in so many others he found useful ; he being more frequently plaintiff than defendant.

p. 1905

        It was in this manner, by a sort of convention, upon views partly private, partly public, with a design sometimes selfish, often generally beneficial, but never without the concurrence and support of the majority of those most interested, was a judicature gradually conferred on these two courts, which with the governor, and the surrogates, possessed all the judicature in the island, civil as well as criminal.

        But a time was coming, when a judicature, that stood on so weak a foundation, was to be shaken. Though the justices, and the judge of the admiralty court might never come to England, the governor and his surrogates necessarily did. In the time of governor Edwards, some persons, discontented with a judgement made by him in court, at St. John's, and carried into execution by the sheriff there, meant to redress themselves by bringing an action against the governor for a trespass in so depriving them of their property. This was to have been tried at Exeter, but it was made up before the case was gone through to the jury.

        The governor got well quit of this business, and he proceeded, during the remainder of his time, to hear causes in person, without the least doubt or difficulty, as his predecessors had before done. But the minds of men were changed upon this subject ; and his successor Admiral Campbell, 1782, was advised not to take upon him to sit in court, as his predecessors had done, nor to determine any causes whatsoever. He substituted in the room of this, a mode which was certainly without exception ; and which, in a country like that, could not fail of having a very useful, and very extensive effect. The petitions which used to be brought to the governor in great numbers, upon all sorts of questions and subjects, were still received as before ; but instead of holding a court, and making decisions, which were to be enforced by the sheriff, he directed his secretary to hear the complainant, and if necessary, the party, against whom the complaint was made, and thereupon to write at the bottom of the petition the governor's opinion, and give such advice as if followed, would have the effect of complete justice. Advice and direction given from such authority was most usually followed ; and the administration of justice was, in a great degree, attained in this mode of application, without any course of process, as in a regular and open court.

        However, in many cases, this method was not acceptable ; and many more persons began, after this time, to recur to the courts of session, and vice-admiralty ; and these two courts, as they were open all the winter, presented a more useful, and certain course of redress, than the above mode of petition. These two courts encreased very much in business from the beginning of Admiral Campbell's government.

        But these two courts derived this accession of business from the necessity of circumstances merely ; their authority was still as feeble as before, and the exercise of it depended upon the like precarious circumstances, for being carried into effect. As the population of St. John's encreased, and as the light of later times, which spreads every where, had reached that place, it became necessary to have something more than opinion and sufferance to found a judicial

p. 1906

authority upon. When Admiral Milbanke was to set out to his government in the summer of 1789, he was strongly advised by his secretary, Mr. Graham, (who had been secretary to the three preceding governors) to get something of a court established, that might stand on unquestionable authority ; and the governor's commission being searched for this purpose, it was found that he had full power to appoint judges, and in cases necessary, justices of oyer and terminer, &c. It was suggested to him, that judges, contrasted as the word there seemed to be with justices of oyer and terminer, ought to be considered as meaning something different from such justices ; and that being in a popular, untechnical sense, usually applied to those who preside in the three courts in Westminster-hall, it had grown in the minds of unprofessional men to signify more especially judges in civil matters ; that it therefore seemed, the governor, by these words, had authority to institute a court of civil jurisdiction ; and he was accordingly advised to institute a court of common pleas to proceed by a jury in the manner of a court of common law in this kingdom.

        This opinion upon the wording of the commission, was urged not to be a strained exposition, to obtain totidem verbis, an authority which perhaps might not have been intended to be given ; but to be a necessary one, and such alone, as could be drawn from the words. But those who have read the foregoing history, of the first granting to the governor the authority of appointing commissioners of oyer and terminer, will be satisfied, when he reads the same words in the first commission granted for that purpose, that they were designed to convey nothing more than that simple authority. One may be a little surprised how a power of appointing commissioners of oyer and terminer should be penned so as to stand judges, and in cases necessary justices of oyer and terminer. But it appears that in commissions to West India, and other governors, where it was meant to convey the power of appointing standing judges, as well as occasional justices, these words are to be found, placed in this manner ; and in the way precedents are followed, these words were copied, where it was meant to appoint only justices of oyer and terminer, and those occasionally.

        The governor's authority, whatever it might be, was actually carried into effect, by an appointment of a court of common pleas, and judges, in the summer 1789. This court of common pleas transacted business during the following winter ; but the western merchants preferred very heavy complaints against the proceedings of this court ; what they alledge against it may be seen shortly stated in the representation afterwards made by the committee of trade, and now printed by order of the House of Commons. Their great objection, which they do not state, but which I will venture to do for them is this ; that they now saw a court established (as they believed) upon good authority, with which they could not trifle, as they had been used to do with the feeble judicatures before-mentioned ; those inefficient courts they preferred, because they could make use of them when they needed their assistance, and could intimidate the justices, and obstruct their proceedings, whenever they themselves were to be the objects of animadversion. They had been in the habit of seeing this species of weakness and anarchy ever since Newfound-



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