Provincial Court

Historical Overview

The existence of the Provincial Court can be traced to 1729 in colonial Newfoundland. Prior to that time, and for some decades later, settlement in the colony was not officially authorized. The tenure of governing authorities was seasonal and transient. From the time of the discovery of Newfoundland in 1497 until 1729 the now infamous "Fishing Admirals" administered the only public form of justice in the colony. This form of justice was authorized by Charter and special writ while adherence to the rule of law was not often considered to be of particular importance. This system was confirmed by King Williams Act, 1699 but in 1729, responding to demands from the colony, Captain Henry Osbourne was dispatched to Newfoundland as the first Governor of the territory with an administration mandate that included the discretion to appoint justices of the peace as local magistrates along with a number of constables for the purpose of administering justice in the place of the fishing admirals.

One of Governor Osbourne's first acts was to divide the territory into 6 districts and appoint justices to act as magistrates in each. 20 such magistrates were appointed and they covered an area roughly from Bonavista Bay to Cape Race. The justices, or magistrates, were recruited from the local civilian population and because settlement had by this time become de facto permanent it was intended that they should act as resident, year-round justices. They exercised the same basic jurisdiction as their counterparts in England. For many years after that time there existed a sharp rivalry between the fishing admirals and those magistrates concerning who had actual authority in the colony. The fishing admirals were reluctant to give up their authority and they contended that the local justices were merely "winter justices" and that they retained authority during the fishing seasons while they were present in Newfoundland. However, magistrates represented the only permanently organized local system of justice in the colony prior to the establishment of the Supreme Court in 1791.

Early magistrates were appointed by commission and served without government remuneration. Their jurisdiction extended beyond criminal matters and they were entitled to collect fees from convicted persons as well as from other parties before the courts as remuneration for their services.

Stipendiary magistrates, or salaried magistrates, were first appointed in the 19th century. They eventually extended throughout the colony taking over from the voluntary, part-time justices. From those humble beginnings a professional magistracy evolved. The court system over which the stipendiary magistrates presided became known as the Magistrates' Court. That nomenclature prevailed until 1974 when the Legislature of what had now become the Province of Newfoundland enacted the first ever Provincial Court Act thereby replacing parts of the old Summary Jurisdiction Act and officially changing the name of the court to the Provincial Court of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Confederation with Canada in 1949 was a milestone event in the development of the Provincial Court of today but magistrates continued to exercise jurisdiction over criminal and civil matters.

In 1979, by amendment of the Provincial Court Act, magistrates became known officially as Provincial Court judges.