British Columbia. County Court

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British Columbia. County Court

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  • County Court

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The County Court system in BC, which lasted until its merger with the BC Supreme court in 1990, dates back to colonial times – 1856 in the case of the Colony of Vancouver Island (established in 1849), and 1859 in the case of the mainland Colony of BC (established in 1858). Both were based on the English County Court system created in 1846 by the County Courts (England) Act of 1846.

The Inferior Court of Civil Justice of Vancouver Island was intended to deal with minor matters (small debts, petty suits, etc.). Initially it sat only in Victoria, subordinate to the Supreme Court and presided over by Chief Justice David Cameron. In 1866 the District Courts Act extended its jurisdiction to the rest of the island, by empowering the Governor to create Inferior Court Districts and appoint local Justices of the Peace (JP) or Stipendiary Magistrates (SM) as judges to preside over cases involving less than $250.

On the mainland, the British Columbia Small Debts Act, 1859 , proclaimed by Governor James Douglas, empowered him to commission any individual to act as a County Court Judge in the colony “to hear and determine all personal pleas and all actions of tort cognizable by the County Courts in England”, the amount recoverable not to exceed £50. In practice this meant commissioning JPs or SMs and giving them the same powers in small debt actions as English County Court Judges although the former lacked the same qualifications. The 1859 Act was replaced by the “County Court Ordinance” of 1866 which set up County Courts under a County Court Judge, with jurisdiction in civil actions up to $500 and procedures based on English County Court legislation. The County Courts Jurisdiction Ordinance of the same year affirmed that County Court Judges in BC, who continued to be SMs (either existing or appointed as such), possessed the same general powers as their [more qualified] counterparts in England, except for the probate of wills and administration of intestate estates.

After the union of the two colonies in 1866, the County Court Ordinance, 1867 replaced the previous legislation in both colonies dealing with county courts and standardized the county court system and procedure for the united colony. Appointment was by the Governor, a Supreme Court Judge could act as a County Court Judge, duties of the Clerk of the Court were to be performed by the County Court Judge, and the amount recoverable was limited to $500. Six County Court Judges were appointed, selected from the existing Stipendiary Magistrates, and assigned to informal districts based in Victoria, Nanaimo and Comox, Lillooet, Richfield (Cariboo district), Yale, and New Westminster), although not all the Judges resided in their areas.

This legislation, with a few amendments - including appointment by of County Court Judges by the Governor-General of Canada after July 1871, essentially remained in effect until 1881. The six incumbents retained their positions. In 1873, County Courts were given jurisdiction over Mining Courts, which had been set up on the mainland in 1865. After a series of disallowed acts, in 1878 legislation was passed by which SC Judges would preside over the County Courts, rather than the lay magistrates acting as County Court Judges, contingent upon the appointment of two additional Supreme Cout Judges (for a total of 5). The relevant sections came into effect in January 1881.

In 1883, a new County Court Act was passed, coming into effect in 1884 which not only reinstated the independent position of County Court Judge , but formally established the County Courts of Victoria, New Westminster, Yale, Cariboo, Kootenay, and Nanaimo, with jurisdiction in districts as defined by electoral district and polling division. Each such court was constituted a Court of Record with a Registrar appointed by provincial order-in-council. Jurisdiction was expanded to include Grant of Probate and Letters of Administration for those dying within the territorial limits of the County Court District. As with the Supreme Court, the original of each will was to be sent to the Supreme Court Registrar in Victoria. Supreme Court Judges retained the right to act as County Court Judges. The first appointment under the 1883 Act was made in 1884; the rest followed in 1889 and later. The first County Court Rules published in BC appeared in 1885 and replaced the English County Court Rules.
In 1888, an Act was passed to constitute “County Court Judge’s Criminal Courts” in BC to hear criminal cases under the provisions of the federal Speedy Trials Act , i.e. in which the defendant consented to be tried by a judge only.

In 1891 the BC Supreme Court Act was amended to make provision for having County Court Judges commissioned as Local Judges of the Supreme Court, i.e. within their respective districts.

In 1905, the 1883 Act, as amended up to that point, was replaced with a new County Courts Act which incorporated much of the Revised Statutes 1897 c.52 version. The County Court and District of Atlin was added to those previously created by the 1883 Act, and a subsequent order-in-council separated the County Court of Kootenay into East and West Kootenay, making a total of nine County Court Districts. The jurisdiction in probate was set at $2500. The 1905 County Court Rules were declared in force, replacing the 1885 Rules.

Between 1905 and the merger of the County Court system with the Supreme Court, there were only minor amendments. By the 1960s the overlap between County and Supreme Court functions increased and by 1969 the abolition of County Courts was already being considered. In 1978 there was an amalgamation of the County Courts of Victoria and Nanaimo as the County Court of Vancouver Island, and of the County Courts of East and West Kootenay as the County Court of Kootenay (SBC 1978 c.11).

In 1987, provision was made for a County Court Judge to be appointed “Chief Judge of the County Courts” for BC to have “general supervision of … judges of the County Courts.” Previously, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court had fulfilled this function. There was never a central County Court, as with the BC Supreme Court and BC Court of Appeal, only District Courts.

The Supreme Court Act of 1989 (SBC 1989, c.40) which came into effect on 1 July 1990, repealed the County Court Act (RS 1979 c.397). The functions of the County Courts were absorbed by the Supreme Court system.


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Revised (with Administrative History): MCARTER 2019-12-16
Administrative History: FVERSPOOR 2019-12-13




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