The old court records, handwritten and bound in thick dusty binders, belie the stories they tell – B.C.’s early cases of murder, celebrity intrigue and the aboriginal fight for rights.
The B.C. Archives at the Royal B.C. Museum officially took possession Thursday of B.C.’s earliest legal history in the form of ledgers spanning cases from 1897 to 1987. Sixty boxes of documents had been lost in time until a curious court records officer found them in the basement of the Vancouver Law Courts last year.
Christine Gergich started her new job as the appellate court records officer in February 2012, and fortunately for the historical record of B.C., she was already a trained archivist when she came across the trove.
“When I opened the boxes I noticed the vintage,” Gergich said at the handover ceremony at the museum. “I started looking at the index cards. There are some interesting cases in there. There was a famous murder case – it gave me chills looking at the records.”
Gergich worked with the B.C. Court of Appeal, the Ministry of Justice and B.C. Archives to catalogue, clean, repair, and finally ship the ledgers to Victoria. When found, the books were coated in dust and grime, but much of the tidy penmanship is as clear as the day it was written.
“The older books are far more legible than people’s handwriting today,” remarked Jean Topham, a paper conservator with the archive.
Suzanne Anton, Minister of Justice and attorney general of B.C., and Frank Kraemer, executive director of the superior court judiciary, heaped praise on Gergich’s efforts to preserve the documents.
“It took the keen eye of Christine Gergich to recognize their significance. It was her initiative to take them out of the basement and have them restored to the archive,” Kraemer said.
The 38-year-old Vancouver resident called it “a collaborative effort.”
“I’m pleased to be involved with the ministry and the B.C. museum and archives,” she said. “It’s really important the citizens of B.C. have access to this. The volume of material is significant.”
The ledgers emerged from the predecessor of the B.C. Supreme Court, called the “Full Court,” circa 1897 and from the B.C. Court of Appeals which started in 1910. Perhaps the most intriguing documents are “cause books,” which include written records of court proceedings, names of plaintiffs and defendants, summaries of the lawsuit or criminal trial and the judgement handed down.
Among the cause books is the delightfully scandalous case of then B.C. premier James Dunsmuir (and builder of Hatley Castle) being sued by his brother’s mistress and his own mother, Joan Dunsmuir, in 1903, over his brother Alexander’s will.
“That case caused a stir through North America at the turn of the century and was great tabloid fodder,” Anton noted.
On the more legally significant end of the scale, the books outline a B.C. Court of Appeal decision in 1964, which upheld an acquittal of four aboriginal men accused of hunting deer outside hunting season. The acquittal was based on a 1854 agreement between the Nanaimo First Nation and the Hudson’s Bay Co. under James Douglas, and was the first time a B.C. court recognized a Douglas treaty as protecting aboriginal rights.
Anton, whose father David Ricardo William was a noted lawyer and B.C. legal historian, said the sum total of the donation further solidifies that the rule of law closely followed the settlement of B.C.
“As the attourney general and a lawyer and former Crown prosecutor I find B.C. legal history fascinating,” Anton said. “What I find most compelling is that B.C. was settled by the rule of law, not by arms, not by force.
“Sir James Douglas and Sir Matthew Begbie kept B.C. British and kept the rule of law. It’s why we are the way we are today.”
The Court of Appeal and Full Court records help complete the archive’s collection of legal documents, transferred from the Court Records Centre that closed in 2004. Last October, the archive also accepted thousands of land title and business documents spanning 125 years from Pemberton Holmes Ltd.
Archive documents are kept in environmentally controlled storage at the museum or in warehouses offsite.
RBCM chief executive Jack Lohman placed the donation in a historical context reaching back to the ancient Greeks. “Archive,” he explained, has its root in the Greek word for office of the chief magistrate, and a dwelling where official state documents were held. He thanked Anton for donating the records to the B.C. Archives.
“In doing so follows all great justices in the world going back to antiquity,” Lohman said. “The minister’s actions follow 3,000 years of tradition and ensures the B.C. government effectively brings the public greater access to its records.”
To access the documents, contact the B.C. Archive through royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/bcarchives.