Justice on Newfoundland’s northeast coast

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The SS Daisy Legal History Committee may very well be one of the province’s best-kept secrets.

Operating under the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, it is mandated with preserving the province’s legal heritage.

Burton K. Janes

The committee is named after the government boat, Daisy, that carried members, judges, sheriffs and clerks to the courts in smaller communities in pre-1949 Newfoundland.

Since 1991, the committee has published several works dealing with various aspects of the province’s legal history, including "Poetic Justice: Literary Lawyers and Artistic Advocates," "Barrels to Benches: The Foundations of English Law on Newfoundland’s West Coast," "A Flag, An Anthem, A Courthouse," and "Under the Clock: A Legal History of the ‘Ancient Capital.’ "

Christopher P. Curran, the committee’s co-chair, explains that the nine essays that make up "The Face of Justice on Newfoundland’s Northeast Coast," a recent work, "show not only that the sources of law and the level of justice activities varied as demographic, social and economic conditions changed throughout this period" – the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century – "but that the law and its institutions formed an integral part of the fabric of everyday community life and were valued as such."

Written by academic historians, as well as by public and community historians, the chapters "reflect the growing interest in our legal history both within and outside the university community."

Three of the articles trace essential elements of the judicial face in Conception Bay.

Hans Rollmann’s essay is entitled "Two Competing Authorities in Eighteenth-Century Conception Bay: The Complaint of Conception Bay Merchants Against Reverend Laurence Coughlan."

Rollmann explains: "Religion provided one of the personal and social anchors that stabilized this society, but, as the Coughlan case demonstrates, at times also seriously challenged the precarious order with an alternative set of values and competing claims to a higher theological and moral authority."

Robert Cuff and Gerald Penney shed light on the Harbour Grace Court House. Built in 1830-31, it is the oldest court house in the province and, the authors note, "a monument to the legal history of Newfoundland and Labrador ... As a consequence of the current building’s substantial construction and continuous use, there are a wealth of 19th century documents which have survived, a collection that is without parallel in the province."

Gerald Barnable provides a brief history of the community of Brigus. He also discusses two court houses, built in 1835 (or 1836) and 1884, respectively.

He tells about five magistrates (Robert John Pinsent, Charles Cozens, John Wilcox, Jabez Pike Thompson and Alfred Penny). Barnable concludes his chapter with three case studies of court work "which involves Brigus and its citizenry and would have engrossed them at the time."

The third case study is of particular interest to me because of my personal interest in the life and career of the celebrated American painter, printmaker, illustrator and writer, Rockwell Kent (1882-1971).

In the so-called "case of the assaulted apothecary," in 1914, the justice of the peace and druggist, James P. Hearn, took Kent to court for assaulting him and threatening him with death.

A year or so later, Kent left the island, claiming he and his family had been "deported under the authority of the Defense of the Realm Act suspected of being German spies."

Barnable concludes: "When we take (Kent’s) claim that he was verbally ordered to leave; when we consider he spent periods of time in Maine, Greenland, and Alaska and didn’t stay in any of those places, it might be questioned whether he ever meant to stay in Newfoundland ... His departure was rather like Farley Mowat’s flight from Burgeo in the 1960's after the locals had shot up Moby Joe (or Josephine), the trapped whale."

Other chapters focus on law and authority in eighteenth-century Newfoundland (Jerry Bannister), the Judicature Act of 1824 and its antecedents (Curran), the law at Greenspond (Curran and Linda White), and the Trinity court house (Jim Miller). Melvin Baker closes out the book with reflections on the SS Daisy, a survivor of William Coaker’s Navy, and a tribute to Chief Justice Arthur Samuel Mifflin.

"The articles in this publication," J. Derek Green suggests, "only begin to tap the surface of a surprisingly rich legal history. They give the lie to the once popular notion that early Newfoundland settlement was a lawless society that was backward in its development."

— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at burtonj@nfld.net.

Geographic location: Newfoundland

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  • Burton K. Janes
    February 11, 2014 - 08:15

    Rev. Oldford: Thank you for your response to my “Compass” column, “Justice on Newfoundland’s northeast coast.” I’m glad you found it interesting, at least up to a certain point. I am truly sorry about the experience you and your son - indeed, your entire family - passed through. I can only hope and pray that all of you will find some sense of peace in an often unpeaceful world. I am responsible for this article. However, I would like to point out that my only reference to Judge Gerald Barnable was as the author of an article he wrote in the book on the Town of Brigus and two court houses. I don’t know the man personally and have never met him. Thank you! Burton K. Janes

  • Rev Donald Oldford
    January 21, 2014 - 08:46

    I read the article about justice on Newfoundland's Northeast Coast, found it interesting until I came to what a so called judge namely Gerald Barnable. A man of total dishonesty on the bench while judge. I went through a terrible experience, dealt with by so called judge Gerald Barnable. His corruptness had such a devastation on my entire family. My youngest son went into deep depression and since has not been able to get himself together. Wish that I had the opportunity to sit with Barnable, and to share with him what devastation happens when he makes such wrong judgements on people. To satisfy a young girl namely prosecutor and give her a winning case to give her self confidence, it's a shame. Whoever is responsible for this article about justice in Newfoundland, you certainly went wrong by choice of including Gerald Barnable in your article.