- Petty Justice: Low Law and the Sessions System in Charlotte County, New Brunswick, 1785–1867 by Paul Craven
This detailed and thoughtful account of the administration of justice in Charlotte County, New Brunswick, before Confederation offers insights on how “low law”—appointed amateur officials and the general sessions of the peace—worked at the ground level. On the border between the British colony of New Brunswick, established in 1784, and what became the state of Maine in 1820, Charlotte County was settled by Loyalists after the American Revolutionary War and is blessed with a rich cache of records, legal and otherwise, documenting its colourful colonial past. As soon as a boundary between the United States and British North America was (more or less) established, the county’s Bay of Fundy coasts and offshore islands emerged as one of the great smuggling centres of the North Atlantic world, ranking with St. Mary’s on the Georgia-Spanish Florida border and Heligoland in the Baltic. In addition, the county’s Crown lands, which were subject to imperial laws relating to naval reserves and land grants, generated extensive litigation in a region where forestry became a significant industry with the onset of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. By examining the administrative and legal apparatus of the sessions system and tracking the experiences of those making, keeping, and violating the law (sometimes one and the same person) in Charlotte County, Paul Craven sheds light on the grey [End Page 565] areas in which justice—subject throughout to local, regional, and international pressures—was pursued.
The story is told in three parts. Part One explores the relations between the “St Andrews junto,” men of some substance and much ambition living in the county seat, and their rivals in the outlying parishes, among them the larger-than-life David Owen, a younger son of a prominent Welsh family, which was granted Campobello Island by the British Crown in 1767. This section also introduces Owen’s nemesis, Charles Reid Hatheway, a younger son of Loyalists who eventually undertook much of the day-to-day administration of local justice from his home in St. Andrews to supplement his income as a junior half-pay officer. Hatheway’s extensive papers, especially after 1840, when he was reinstated as a justice of the peace following more than seven years out of favour, provides rich evidence for Part Two, which parses how disputes were resolved and examines legal cases relating to Crown lands, civil suits, and criminal actions. Part Three explores administrative challenges with respect to jails and courthouses, the poor law, and liquor licensing and concludes with an analysis of how a variety of factors, including political reforms, the temperance movement, Irish immigration, and new building projects, undermined the fiscal foundation of the sessions system. By the 1870s “local prejudice,” “the whims of puffed-up amateurs,” and “the bumbling inanities of amiable imbeciles” in Charlotte County had given way to elected municipal officials, standardized legal practices, and greater provincial oversight. Because of the ad hoc nature of judicial proceedings in the early years of New Brunswick’s history, the goals of local justice, Craven maintains, were largely accomplished. These, he argues, had little to do with justice abstractly conceived but instead sought to achieve peaceful social relations, maintain social and economic order, and ensure that local elites controlled community affairs.
In combining biography with thematic analysis, Craven makes what could have been a dry-as-dust legal history a highly entertaining treasure trove for anyone interested in pre-Confederation social history. This is local history at its best, providing insights that are relevant not only to New Brunswick but also to the many other jurisdictions in the British Empire where the sessions system prevailed. [End Page 566]