A Cautious Beginning: The Court of Civil Jurisdiction 1791
by Christopher English and Christopher Curran

by The Honourable Noel Goodridge
Chief Justice of Newfoundland

The early development of the court structure of Newfoundland was intertwined with the fisheries. The merchant fishermen exercised strong influence in Imperial policy with regard to the island. As a consequence, settlement was discouraged by law and the establishment of a court system was considered undesirable.

Notwithstanding that policy, settlement did take place and a court system was introduced by degrees. Highlighting the reluctant introduction were King William's Act (1699), the establishment of Sessions Courts by Captain Henry Osborne (1729), the Court of Vice-Admiralty (1744) and the Courts of Oyer and Terminer (1750), and Palliser's Act (1775) enlarging the jurisdiction of the Sessions Courts.

The Act of 1791 was the culmination of the efforts of many people over a 100 year period to have a structured court system introduced. This essay, aptly entitled A Cautious Beginning, depicts the struggle to gain this end. The authors, Christopher Curran and Professor Christopher English, have painstakingly extracted from Newfoundland history those events pertaining to the development of the courts during that period.

The first Supreme Court of Newfoundland was indeed a cautious beginning. It had limited civil jurisdiction and no criminal jurisdiction. It was nevertheless the foundation upon which the present court structure was built. While we mark the 200th anniversary of this significant event in the development of judicature in Newfoundland, we nevertheless recognize, as portrayed by the authors in this graphic work, that the establishment of the Supreme Court at that time was, in a way, the end of a beginning (to borrow from one of Churchill's many quotable comments). It is important for us all to remember that justice was not always an available commodity. Of the three cornerstones of democracy--a legislature, an administration and an independent judiciary--only the administration was present in that early period. The judiciary came in bits and pieces and that in turn played a role in the establishment of representative government.

St. John's, Newfoundland
July 1991

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