Down North on the Labrador Circuit: The Court of Civil Jurisdiction 1826 to 1833
by Nina Jane Goudie


The Legal System Under Review

A general review of Newfoundland's legal system was initiated in 1828 in preparation for renewal of the 1824 Judicature Act in January 1829. Judges were asked to comment on the “suitableness of the present system of jurisprudence to the condition of the people... how it is defective and... alterations that should be made.”95 Judge Paterson submitted a return of civil actions tried in the Labrador Court for 1826 to 1828 (see Table 3). The report showed that over the three-year period, the court visited an increasing number of communities each year to hear an increasing number of cases. The duration of each term also increased from 53 days in its first year to 74 days in 1828. The travel time to and from Labrador and between communities accounted for about 60% of the term; the Court actually sat 22 days in 1826, 19 in 1827 and 27 in 1828. As noted earlier, in comparison with the Northern Circuit Court the number of cases heard seems low. Cognizant of this, Judge Paterson noted that the figures “by no means afford an adequate view either of the number of cases of complaint that have been decided or set at rest — or of the extent of litigation that arises between parties resorting to the Labrador Coast.”96 Perhaps more cases were arbitrated or formally settled than the records indicate.

Table No. 3 Return of the Civil Actions tried in the Court of Civil Jurisdiction: 1826-28
Year Duration of the Term No. of Days Sat Location Writs Sued Out Amt Sued For Actions Tried Action Tried
1826 53 days 4 Rigolett 1* - - -
2 Mullins Cove 1 50.0.0 1 50.0.0
4 Tub Harbour 2 82.6.1 2 82.6.1
6 Dumplen Island 4 54.2.5 4 54.2.5
6 Cape Charles 5 194.15.6 6 194.15.6
Totals: 22 13 881.4.0 13 381.4.0
*writ returnable in 1827.
1827 62 days 3 Grady harbour 5 201.1.10 5 20.1.10
3 Dumplen Island 1* 200.0.0 - -
3 Tub Harbour 3* 151.11.0 - -
1 Indian Island 1* 8.0.0 - -
3 Indian Tickle 1 20.0.0 1 20.0.0
6 Cape Charles 7 338.12.2 7 338.12.2
Totals: 19 18 738.5.0 13 378.14.0
Court also presided in the following places where there was no business for its consideration: Frances Harbour, Indian, Point North, Mulins Cove, Rigolett and Cuff harbour. (*writs returnable in 1828)
1828 74 days 6 Tub Harbour 8 811.12.6 6 562.2.0
4 Dumplen Island 1* 200.0.0 - -
4 Grady Harbour 6 188.17.0 6 188.17
1 Seal Island 1 100.0.0 1 100.0.0
2 Frances Island 1 100.10.0 1 100.10.0
6 Cape Charles 11 386.5.3 9 127.2.0
4 Henley Harbour 4 98.0.6 4 98.0.0
Totals: 27 32 1885.53 27 1181.12.0
Court also presided in the following places where there was no business for its consideration: L'Anse a Loup, Forteau, Indian Tickle, South East Cove, Long Island, Indian Island, point North, Rigolett, Kinnamish, Cuff Harbour, Indian Harbour and Mullins Cove. (*returnable in 1829)
Three Year Total 68 63 ~£3,504 53 ~£1,904

Source:Board of Trade,“Return of the Civil Actions tried in the Court of Civil Jurisdiction for the Labrador district within the Government of Newfoundland for 1826, 1827, and 1828,” CO-194, 1828, pp. 353-358. Note: There is a slight variance in the number of cases reported in this report and the summary presented in Table 2. Some information may have been omitted rom the Courts Records and/or some cases from the Court of Sessions may have been included in the final figures.
Predictably, Paterson's report spawned discussion about the need for a court system in Labrador. Reporting to London, Governor Cochrane argued that having a court available to the people within the Labrador region, regardless of the number of cases actually heard, was essential. Court officers traveling to the coast had a deterrent effect on lawlessness there. He feared that a move was afoot to cancel the Court.97 He commented that the small number of cases did not mean there should not be law and asked “... with equal propriety would a Criminal Circuit Court be dispensed with in any County in England because there happened occasionally to be an empty Callender?”98

The Supreme Court did not initially respond to London's request for an analysis of the Court system, saying that it had not been “in operation a sufficient time to sanction a decided opinion as to its merits or defects.”99 However, by 1831 judges Tucker, Des Barres, and Brenton felt ready to issue a Report on the Judicature of 1824 and the System of Jurisprudence on the Island of Newfoundland.100 In their opinion, in its first five years the Supreme Court had made little progress towards implementing the full system of judicature envisioned by the judicature Act of 1824. The judges were frustrated by the challenges inherent in running itinerant courts to outlying areas. Variable weather created delays, and court visits often had to be accelerated or cut short so that the judge could proceed to the next community. The three judges expressed their support for the previous surrogate system abolished in 1824. The new regime

...as a mode of dispensing justice and importing civil protection to the great multitude of people who are diffused in small bodies along the whole of the shore, it is certainly more inefficient and perhaps less satisfactory to the inhabitants of those district parts, than ever the naval surrogate system to which it succeeded.101

Labrador was specifically excluded from the report: “As we do not possess any information respecting the Labrador derived from personal observation and experience, we shall entirely refrain from offering any opinion upon the judicature now established there.”102 But Judge Paterson often sat on the Supreme Court. Through him, Tucker, Des Barres, and Brenton would have been aware of how the system was working. For whatever reason they were reluctant to comment. Given that England had already questioned the need for the Labrador Court, perhaps they feared its extinction if included in a report which charged that the overall system was flawed.

In 1832 Attorney General James Simms also submitted a report to the Governor about the judicature of Newfoundland. He stated that “the present system of Circuit Court is no longer considered as a delusion; it is found to be, to a wide extent, a total failure.”103 Simms felt that itinerant courts could not possibly meet the day-to-day demands of a system of judicature, suggesting that it be replaced with ten sedentary district courts. He also noted a concern for expenditures now associated with transporting officials of the Court around the coast, given that naval vessels were no longer required to patrol the coasts.104 Unlike the judges, Simms did not shy away from commenting on Labrador: “the inhabitants and frequenters of this coast need... the same species of protection in respect to its fishermen that is required for the distant outport settlements of Newfoundland,” and he went on to say, “the present Labrador Court as it is now constituted” was not able to meet the needs on that coast.105 Presumably he felt that resident judges would. Another document on file whose author is unknown concurred with Simms and noted that complaints about the judicature in Newfoundland and “no less in regard to the Labrador... prevail in all the settlements of the Island removed beyond a convenient distance from St. John's.”106

Communications between England and Newfoundland about Labrador were limited to the cost and effectiveness of the legal system. On other matters Labrador was overlooked. A Geographical and Topographical Report submitted to England in 1827 did not include Labrador. Returns of the Fishery for Newfoundland between 1826 and 1833, submitted annually to England, did not include Labrador. Neither was there any mention of the amount of imports or exports from there.107 It could be that the amounts were thought to be included with reports from the north coast or that the amounts were too small to make a material difference, although this was unlikely given the importance of the cod and seal fishery in Labrador. Perhaps, as O'Flaherty asserts, “Labrador remained a distant and obscure wilderness, hardly comprehensible let alone governable.”108 Whatever the cause, Labrador was conspicuous by its absence. And although Judge Paterson was responsible for collecting information about Labrador, other than generic comments on the success or failure of the fishery, detailed reports are not known to have survived.

In 1832 Newfoundland's long awaited representative government became a reality. The House of Assembly met for the first time in 1833. From now on Newfoundlanders would have a say in their own futures. This heralded a new beginning for the population of Newfoundland, now approaching 75,000.109

Labrador was not included in the election process and did not have a seat in the House. O'Flaherty concluded “there was as yet no collectivity that an assembly could be said to represent.”110 Revenue was a constant preoccupation in the initial years of the House of Assembly. Elected officials struggled with financial reality: revenue simply did not cover expenses. Reports tabled in the House showed that the country's legal system accounted for 80% of the budget. So, it was only a matter of time before the Court of Labrador would once again come under the spotlight. In March 1834 it was discontinued by legislative fiat.”111 The reason? “The excessive disposition of the expenses to the advantages derived from it.”112 Judge Paterson and any remnants of the Labrador Court vanished. Paterson's subsequent career is unknown.

Indian Tickle
Indian Tickle by George E. Gladwin, ca. 1877.

From Charles de Volpi, Newfoundland: a Pictorial Record (Sherbrooke, Quebec: Longman Canada Limited, ©1972), 141.
Larger Version with more information (98 kb).

St. John's may have been content but those active in the Labrador fishery complained:

During a late session of the legislature a petition numerously and most respectably signed from the planters and traders of Conception Bay frequenting the Labrador loudly complaining of the want of some means of administration of justice there... The settlers on the coast too, are equally unprotected...113

Correspondence from Newfoundland's administrators to the Colonial Office is replete with calls for the return of a court to Labrador. In 1841 a report reached authorities that for refusing to work on Sunday, servants there were put in irons and fed bread and water until they agreed to work.114 Other than reports such as this from outsiders, the inhabitants of Labrador were silent. Without a representative in the House of Assembly, they had no political clout. It would be thirty years, 1863, before the House would re-institute a court for Labrador.115

    Updated August, 2007





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