The Supreme Court of Newfoundland
Evolution of the Court System in Newfoundland
The court system in Newfoundland has emerged through a number of governance changes down through the years. In the early days, rough justice was meted out by the Fishing Admirals, the only law of the land. Later, the Royal Navy commander in Newfoundland assumed a similar role, but once again, only during the fishing season, since both the navy and the fishing fleet withdrew to England with the onset of bad weather in the late Autumn-early Winter, leaving the few local inhabitants of the island to fend for themselves. Military justice expanded to a full time rather than a seasonal approach later when there was a garrison operating in Newfoundland in the late 18th Century. But by then it had become the practice to extend the long arm of the law into the outports by the appointment of Justices of the Peace and Surrogate Judges to fill the seasonal and geographic gaps.
The Advent of the Supreme Court District Court System
A natural evolution of this process that was in place early in the 19th century was the advent of a Supreme Court with a Central District Division in St. John’s and subsidiary courts for the Southern District in Ferryland and the Northern District in Bonavista. But even then, any significant case, whether civil or criminal, would be heard in St. John’s, at the Supreme Court Trial Division, or even in England before the advent of Responsible Government.
For the Morry family and their close familial and business associates, almost nothing in the way of legal disputes was ever handled outside of the confines of the Surrogate Court system in Ferryland, once that Court had been established, and later the Southern District (or Circuit) Court of the Supreme Court.
Initially, many of the Court records for all three Districts of the Supreme Court were turned over in due course to the Registry of Deeds for safekeeping. And some of the earliest records are still to be found there in large bound volumes (Volume 1 to 6 for the Southern District are the most relevant). But eventually, with the advent of a Provincial Archives system, Supreme Court records began to be turned over to the archives for preservation and safekeeping. Thus, nowadays, when searching for a case or a document that would have been lodged with any one of the three Districts of the Supreme Court, depending on the year, it may be necessary to search through the holdings of both the Registry of Deeds and the Provincial Archives Division of The Rooms. At The Rooms, the collections are further divided by year and topic, cases versus “minutes”, though the latter breakdown is not adhered to very well and hence it is better to search all categories by year to be sure of finding all relevant documents.
Here are the links to the cases of interest in the Registry of Deeds and The Rooms:
Carry-over of the fight between the partners of Matthew Morry & Co. to Newfoundland
There is one notable exception to the general rule that all Morry legal matters were settled in the Southern District of the Surrogate or Supreme Court, and it relates to the plethora of cases before the High Court of Chancery and Court of King’s Bench in England surrounding the collapse of the Matthew Morry & Co. partnership between Matthew Morry and Walter Prideaux starting about 1818.
As part of his ongoing vendetta against his former partner, Matthew Morry, Walter Prideaux, assisted by a number of partners, friends and people in his debt, initiated a number of legal actions intended to take money away from the partnership, and hence Matthew Morry, before the books of the partnership could be audited and closed. Matthew Morry speculated that this was because Walter Prideaux, who had been keeping the books for the company for the past three decades or more had been systematically bleeding funds for his own use from company revenue. Walter Prideaux was a shrewd lawyer and banker and Matthew Morry had little or no education and put his trust implicitly in his more educated partner, in whom, at least initially, he must have been in awe. Consequently, Matthew failed to even keep Day Book records of the business, a task he was obliged to do under the articles of the partnership. So he would have no way of knowing whether income was exceeding expenditures, or whether funds from profits were disappearing without explanation.
We know from testimony before the High Court of Chancery that the company was being sued in the Court of King’s Bench by Robert Newman, a shipbuilder and chandler in Dartmouth, and we are told (though there is no evidence of this in the files of the National Archives) that they are also being sued by John Square, Walter Prideaux’s partner in the Bank of Kingsbridge, Devon known as Prideaux, Square and Prideaux. Matthew contends in his Complaints to the High Court of Chancery that these actions are vexatious and fraudulent and are being orchestrated for and by Walter Prideaux. This remains unproven of course.
We also know from another case before the Court of King’s Bench in the Guildhall in London that the company is being sued by the firm of Olive and Britten, an insurance company referred to as a “Name” affiliated with Lloyds. Although the outcome of that case, like so many others held at the National Archives, is never given in the Court record, there is a newspaper report from a Newfoundland newspaper which suggests the deception was detected by the Judge and Jury and the case against Matthew Morry was dismissed. However, there is reason to believe that Matthew Morry may have been behind that article being published and it therefore needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
Finally, we also know from the records of the Court of King’s Bench that Matthew Morry & co. was also being sued by two of Walter Prideaux’s grandsons, Walter Were Prideaux and Robert Were Prideaux and that case looks suspiciously like the others in terms of the process followed and hence its likely architect.
In the midst of all of this taking place in England, and with Matthew spending his time in Devon and London defending himself against this blizzard of court actions while simultaneously seeking injunctions and dismissal of these cases through actions he himself initiated before the High Court of Chancery, John Square snuck off to St. John’s and put his case before the Supreme Court of Newfoundland.
The records of the Supreme Court held at The Rooms in St. John’s are not the rigid legal documents that we see in the collections of Court of King’s Bench and High Court of Chancery Documents at Kew in England. There are pluses and minuses in that distinction. Certainly, the Court records held at the Provincial Archives Division are easier to understand, being written in layman’s English, not legalese. And they even give some important insights into what the trail judge (unnamed) was thinking as he heard and passed Judgement in the case. That is very useful. But, on the other hand, we lose a great deal of the detail of the original submissions from Plaintiff and Defendant that provide their own insights, though obviously they must be treated with the understanding of their being written in a very biased manner.
Overall, the conclusion here is that, even though John Square’s affidavits are not credible, Matthew Morry’s solicitor did nothing to refute them, and thus, in the end, the judge had little recourse than to rule in favour of the Plaintiff. With the result that much of Matthew Morry’s property in Caplin Bay was seized and sold to pay what may very well have been a fallacious debt.