Halifax Provincial Court (Spring Garden Road)

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Halifax Provincial Court by George Lang (builder)

The "Grand Dame of Spring Garden Road" is a well-known landmark and stands as a monument to the pursuit of justice and democracy in Nova Scotia for more than 150 years. Though there is no record of pomp nor circumstance when the court opened, over its lifetime the court has experienced a celebrated history and, it is said, that it is the most decorated and flamboyant courthouse in the province.

The Court played, and continues to play today, a vital democratic role as it enables an independent judiciary to provide fair, expeditious and effective dispute resolution for all Nova Scotians.

The Spring Garden Road courthouse has done this successfully since the first trial was heard in October 1860 and remains today a functioning courthouse. The Supreme Court sat for the first time in the newly built Halifax County courthouse on Spring Garden Road in October 1860. Home of Supreme Court of Nova Scotia until 1960 when the building temporarily became the Provincial Library and then the home of the Provincial Court in 1971. The most recent renovations to the building were completed in 1985.

The building[edit]

By the 1850s a decision was made to consolidate all the Halifax courts under one roof. After fires razed many downtown buildings during that decade (three major fires destroyed many of the city’s wooden buildings between 1857 and 1861, officials abandoned plans for a wooden structure in favour of a more fireproof option made of stone, to protect the legal records it would house. Following the fires, almost all major buildings were constructed of brick and stone. Built on the grounds of what was then the Governor’s Garden, location of the court was as contentious back in the 1850s as location of public buildings it is today. Even when the Spring Garden Courthouse was opened the location remained contentious and lawyers, reported to have “complained that the building is too far away from the business parts of the city” and it remained unpopular.

Halifax carpenter Henry Hill designed the building and Toronto-based architect William Thomas and Sons were retained and created a palatial structure in sandstone. The building was built by contractor George Lang (builder) who also built The Halifax Club and the Welsford-Parker Monument at the Front gate of St Paul’s Cemetery. Made from brown stone from Mary’s Point New Brunswick and Wallace sandstone from Cumberland County. The Wallace quarry sandstone was also used at Nova Scotia’s Province House, Province House in Charlottetown and some Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. It was proclaimed in the 1860 Halifax city directory that the “court house would do honour to any city in Europe, and cannot be surpassed for architectural beauty by any city of the same size on the continent of America.”

The building’s architectural exterior is classic with palladian style that represents stability and strength. Decorative features of the building include use of vermiculation and the carving of, replete with carvings of the faces of snarling lions and stern, bearded men in each key stone of the original building’s central arches. Interior architectural features to be noted are the pressed metal ceilings, the elaborate arched doorways, the wood paneling and plaster details in the courtrooms and the entry foyer and staircase. In 1863 gas heat replaced 14 fireplaces that inadequately heated the building. Interestingly, the 14 fireplaces remain today though there are none located in the courtrooms.[1]

When originally constructed the Courthouse had two courtrooms, judicial robing and jury rooms, a law library and offices for the prothonotary and registrar of chancery. One of the first occupants was the Sheriff and the office of the Sheriff has remained in the court since. Due to the demand for court space, an addition to the back in the 1881 - 82 added additional courts. Matching wings were erected on either end of the building in 1908 (west wing designed by Herbert E. Gates, architect)[2] and 1930 (east wing) to offer additional courtrooms and office space that are now occupied by the Provincial Crown and Judges’ Chambers.

Today the court houses six courtrooms, judges chambers, court administration offices, the Provincial Crown and cells that can jail up to 50 prisoners. The historic character of the Courthouse remain today and ongoing renovations and upgrades are designed ensure that they honour the original architecture design while at the same time providing efficient modern-day court functions.[3]

The Courthouse has been designated as an historic site of national significance by the Historic Sites and Monument Board.

The Halifax Explosion[edit]

A collision occurred on December 6, 1917 in Halifax Harbour between the vessels, SS Mont-Blanc and SS Imo and resulted in a blast that decimated the district known as Richmond, in the North End of the city. The courthouse suffered $19,000 in damage even though it was farther to the south. At the time, Nova Scotia Supreme Court cases were heard in court room #2 on the second floor, east side of the stairwell. Courtroom #1 (now #4) was used for everything else including Admiralty Court.[4] The walls of the court room itself had sustained some damage and the blown out windows were boarded up. Purportedly, oil lamps were used because the power was out.[5] Despite these conditions, Justice Drysdale and his nautical advisors, Captain Leander A. Demers and Captain Walter Hose, conducted a formal investigation into the causes of the collision one week after the disaster. On 4 February 1918, Justice Drysdale delivered the panel's decision. They found the pilot, Francis Mackey, Captain Aimé Le Médec of the French ship, Mont-Blanc, and Commander F. Evan Wyatt, the RCN's chief examining officer of the port responsible for the collision which led to the disaster.

At the subsequent preliminary hearing, manslaughter and criminal negligence charges were laid against the trio. The charges against the captain and pilot were dismissed on a writ of habeas corpus, issued by Justice Benjamin Russell (15 & 16 March), before the case could go before a grand jury. However, the case against Commander Wyatt proceeded and ended with an acquittal on both charges in less than a day (17 April).

Both shipping companies filed civil action against each other for $ 2 million. Justice Drysdale presided over the initial case and not surprisingly, once again put the blame solely on Mont Blanc. His decision did not stand when the case was brought before the Supreme Court of Canada in 1919 and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London in 1920. Both Courts agreed that Imo and Mont Blanc were equally to blame for the collision.[6]


Courtroom #2 featured an elevator that could ferry prisoners directly into the courtroom from the cells below, but it was removed in the 1930s after is malfunctioned and left a prisoner trapped between floors. It has been noted that “...a prisoner was being sent up to the courtroom to face the judge. Everything was ready for the processes of the law to run along smoothly - but one thing was missing - a prisoner. The ... accused was trapped between floors. And, before the trial could go ahead, they had a difficult time to get the elevator released and the prisoner freed from his unpleasant situation.[7]

Haunting Ghosts[edit]

The last hanging in Halifax occurred on March 7, 1935.[8] Daniel Sampson was hanged for the murder of two boys. He was hanged in back of the courthouse where the parking lot now exists. To this day ghosts of those executed haunt the attic of the courthouse where pieces of wood from the old public gallows are stored. It is said that the wood is stored in a dark, eerie room in the upper story of the building are pieces of the old Halifax gallows, on which many of the city's more infamous criminals met their end long ago. Many years ago one of the building's janitors ran terrified and shaken from the room, swearing he had seen a ghost, and vowing never to return to the room again (a promise he reportedly kept). To this day, staff are hesitant to go to the attic alone where court records are stored.[9]


  1. ^ [1] History of the Nova Scotia Courts.
  2. ^ [2] Original plans housed at HRM Archives.
  3. ^ Canada's Historic Places
  4. ^ The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, 1754-2004, Philip Girard, Jim Phillips & Barry Cahill (© 2004, Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History).
  5. ^ Kerr, Donald. "Another Calamity: The Litigation", Ground Zero, a Reassessment of the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbour, Ruffman, Alan & Howell, Colin (Eds.) (1994, Nimbus) ISBN 1-55109-095-3, note 12, pp. 476-478.
  6. ^ Scapegoat, the extraordinary legal proceedings following the 1917 Halifax Explosion by Joel Zemel (2012, SVP Productions) ISBN 978-0-9684920-9-3
  7. ^ [3] Nova Scotia Courts website.
  8. ^ "Canada Death Penalty Records". Retrieved 2009-01-04. 
  9. ^ CBC Information Morning interview

External links[edit]

[4] History of the Nova Scotia Courts.

Coordinates: 44°38′37″N 63°34′25″W / 44.6436°N 63.5737°W / 44.6436; -63.5737