The courts and the legal profession in Newfoundland and Labrador are distinguished and enduring parts of history, beginning with the first court in the western world, the Court of Admiralty, which sat on June 4, 1615, at Trinity, Newfoundland, presided over by Sir Richard Whitbourne. While there were lawyers present in Newfoundland after this time, it was not until 1826 that they were regulated, first by the Courts, and then, from July 1, 1834, by the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador.
On that date, the Law Society was incorporated by statute to govern the legal profession in Newfoundland and “to regulate the admission of Barristers and (Solicitors) to practice the Law in the Several Courts in this Island.” The Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador is one of the oldest bars in the British Commonwealth.
Historically accurate, a Convocation admitting new lawyers is conducted in two parts, recognizing the separate role played initially by each branch of the profession: the Solicitor met with a client and prepared the case; the Barrister pleaded the case in Court. Today in Newfoundland and Labrador the roles of Solicitor and Barrister are fused as one, but during the last century it was possible to be enrolled as a Solicitor but not as a Barrister, and until 1921 it was necessary to spend a year as a Solicitor before being called as a Barrister. Indeed, until 1956, the two parts of the Convocation ceremony that you observe were held on separate days; the Solicitor was called first.
The first part of the Convocation, during which a candidate becomes a Solicitor of the Supreme Court, is conducted before the Chief Justice of the Trial Division. The President of the Law Society, the person elected by Benchers to be the Chief Executive Officer, introduces each candidate to the Court. The Chief Justice then directs the Senior Deputy Registrar of the Supreme Court to swear or affirm the candidate in the Oath of Allegiance and the Oath of Office of a Solicitor. Following the Oaths, the Solicitor signs the Oaths and the Supreme Court Solicitors’ Roll. Once all candidates are enrolled, the Chief Justice addresses the new Solicitors, after which there is a brief adjournment, about ten minutes, while the Solicitors leave to change into the Barrister’s robes necessary to take the Degree of Barrister-at-Law. Members of the public are requested to stay inside the courtroom during this pause.
The second part of the Convocation, conducted also in the courtroom and during which a candidate receives the Degree of Barrister-at-Law, takes place before Benchers. The word, Benchers, dates from the 1500’s and refers to the benches from which officers of law societies, and judges in courts, originally presided. Today, Benchers are lawyers elected by their peers, or appointed members of the public, who form the governing body of the Law Society. The Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador is the oldest degree granting institution in the province and when Benchers sit in Convocation, they have authority to grant the Degree of Barrister-at-Law. It is this degree that entitles the candidate to appear in court before the bar, this word used to denote the dividing barrier, sometimes a rail, that was, from the 1500’s, traditionally placed between senior lawyers and those junior appearing in court. To be called up to the bar to sit with senior lawyers was a mark of great distinction.