Justices of the Peace: Duties over the Decades

Justice of the Peace duties have been many and varied since the first JP was appointed in New Zealand in 1814.  JPs remained the mainstay of the colony’s primary judicial system until 1868 when Magistrates were appointed.  Since then some JPs continued on the Bench to hear criminal proceedings and to conduct inquests. These days JPs continue to hear minor cases in District Courts (Judicial Duties) while, by far, most are engaged in taking Affidavits and Statutory Declarations and certifying copies of formal documents (Ministerial Duties).

In 2014, on the 200th anniversary of the appointment of the first JP, Thomas Kendall, it was opportune to look back over some of the tasks Justices of the Peace have undertaken in their communities over the decades:

+ From the early 1840s local J.P.s were responsible for revising their district’s Jury List.

+ About the same time, J.P.s were also responsible for granting publican’s licences.  The first issued in New Zealand, to John Johnson for the Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Kororareka (Russell), was signed on the 30th October 1840 only after Justices of the Peace authorised it.

An early Duke of Marlborough Hotel, c 1908. Auckland Museum Collections

+ J. P.s joined Governor Hobson and the Executive Council to form the colony’s first Legislative Council in November 1841

+ In the mid-late 1800s Justices of the Peace had the say on the disposal of strayed stock under the Impounding Act, 1856. Roaming animals would be put in the Public Pound waiting to be claimed by their owner. The Pound-keeper was duty bound to advertise a description of the animals and if no one claimed them he would sell them to defray costs of feed and keep while they had been in the pound. But not before he applied to a JP for an order enabling the sale.

Michael Murphy, JP, sets up Wellington’s first pound 1841

+J.P.s heard witnesses’ accounts after the 1843 Wairau affray, the bloody engagement between Maori and British settlers, which left 22 British and 4 Maori dead.

+ J.P.s residing on the coast were expected to report debris washed up after shipwrecks.

Details were, thus, received on flotsam from the brigantine “Hercules” which foundered on the Kaipara Harbour in 1874 and news of a lifeboat washed ashore from HMS “Dart”, thought missing off North Cape in a storm in 1889. The ship, in fact, survived the gale losing her boat overboard in mountainous seas off Three Kings Islands. She was also reported missing after a second storm, this time in Bass Strait: she weathered that one, too.

HMS Dart
Tasmania Archives

+ In 1850s Governor Sir George Grey introduced what we today would call a Small Claims Tribunal, with JPs presiding. Although controversial, the measure meant that any civil claim could be decided by a Resident Magistrate, or any two or more Justices of the Peace, by way of summary proceeding, provided that neither of the parties were of the native race, that the defendant resided more than 10 miles from the office of any Court of Requests, and that the debt or damage claimed did not exceed £20.

+ Justices of the Peace had two roles in an 1846 law which enabled insane persons to be detained. First, 2 JPs had to be satisfied that medical practitioners testifying about lunatics had appropriate qualifications. Having proved their credentials the doctors could, on oath, give evidence before the JPs that persons were “dangerous lunatics or idiots”, following which Justices of the Peace, where appropriate, had authority to commit such persons to “strict custody”.

+ J.P.s, under an 1880 Act, could vouch for the “good reputation” of an alien seeking naturalisation.

+ In the 1880s J.P.s., exclusively, decided sentences for serious disciplinary matters within the New Zealand Volunteer Forces. The Commanding Officer of J. Battery, the N.Z. Artillery Volunteers, Gisborne, thought he should be entitled to decide punishment and appealed the question in the Supreme Court. Mr Justice Richmond said “under Section 46 of the Volunteer Act the commanding officer is the prosecutor, not the judge… ….the jurisdiction to adjudicate is given to Justices alone”. The proceedings were widely reported in New Zealand newspapers, headlined “Important Decision For Volunteers”.

+ In the handbook “New Zealand Justice of the Peace” by W. C. R. Haselden, 1895, J.P.s are advised of their new responsibilities within recent legislation. In the past year, Haselden reported, the following had been added to existing J.P.s’ duties: Abattoirs, Criminal Code, Destitute Persons, Gaming, Indictable Offences, Lunatics, Oaths, Offensive Publications, School Attendance, Shipping, Sea Fisheries, Shops and Shop Assistants and the Stamp Act.  “This,” wrote the author, “is illustration of the speed in which legislation is going on”.

+In March 1928 Mrs Nellie E. Ferner and Miss S. E. Jackson were given a unique role. Under Section 27 of the Child Welfare Act they were appointed Justices with jurisdiction on the bench in the Auckland Children’s Court. Mrs Ferner had sat with the presiding magistrate as “associate member” since April 1925 when that court was constituted but for those 3 years she could only tender advice on cases brought forward. Mrs Nellie Ferner founded the Sunshine School in the old Nelson Street School in 1928, a day-care haven for children as they recuperated after hospital treatment and for others needing care. Fresh air, good diet and sunlight were features of the institution, later credited with fewer cases of delinquency seen by the Courts. Miss Jackson was, until 1925, matron of the Mount Albert Industrial Home. She retired after 34 years’ service, so had wide experience in child welfare work.

The Sunshine Club buildings were demolished in 1965: Boystown replaced it
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 7-A1874

+ For many years J.P.s sat as Coroners. The Evening Post in 1936… “Magistrates in New Zealand by virtue of their office are Coroners, and every Coroner by virtue of his office is a Justice of the Peace. The Coronership in this country is not confined to Magistrates, there being a number of Coroners who are not Magistrates. They are usually appointed from the ranks of the Justices of the Peace to determine when, where and why death occurred”.

+ JPs also regularly acted as coroners at inquests into the cause of fires, whether or not they resulted in death or injury. The enquiry was to decide the cause, and, if necessary, to make any recommendations, usually to try to prevent recurrence – but sometimes to charge a person with arson. In 1889 B. O. Stewart, J.P. “and a respectable jury” (as the Daily Southern Cross newspaper put it) inquired into a fire that destroyed Mr Roberts’ Port Waikato home. The jury could not determine the cause.

But it was different in 1926 when A. S. Laird, J.P. conducted an inquest into a blaze that wiped out almost the entire township of Raurimu. “I return an open verdict. In my opinion evidence is insufficient to warrant a charge being made, and… I find that the Spiral Hotel was burned down under suspicious circumstances, and that all the other buildings were destroyed as a result of the fire in the hotel”.

Fire swept through Raurimu’s business area. Auckland Museum Collections

+ Consider Mr Phillip Sebastien Riley’s long day in December 1934 when as a J.P. he witnessed an attempt on the world sheep-shearing record at Pihama in Taranaki. Crack shearer Percy de Malmanche put through 409 sheep in 9 hours, breaking the world record. Mr Riley issued a certificate to that effect, adding in his own handwriting that de Malmanche, unlike some shearers, had himself caught and dragged each sheep from the pen. (The record survived until the 1950s when Godfrey Bowen broke it.)

+Electoral – In the old days it was up to J.P.s to scan the electoral rolls to ensure only eligible people were listed, and at the other end of the process, J.P.s to this day are still deployed to observe the final official counting of votes after elections.

+Electoral – J.P.s in earlier times were required to witness electoral petitions when there were challenges to the declared result of local body elections.

+New regulations to the Poisons Act in 1937 meant a J.P. or police officer had to vouch for the identification of those persons not known to the pharmacist who wished to buy the more potent poisons.

+J.P.s signed off destruction of animals. In February 1934 a severely injured horse lying in the road in Lower Hutt was destroyed by police after a J.P. signed an appropriate enabling certificate pursuant to the Police Offences Act.

+As late as 1939 if a J.P. signed a declaration, satisfied that a deceased person’s estate, or relatives, had insufficient funds to pay for the burial, the trustees of any cemetery were obliged to bury the body free of charge.

Mary Anderson. J. P.
Alexander Turnbull Library

+ In June 1945 Auckland J.P. Mary Anderson, was reputedly the first woman to sit on the bench as a Magistrate. She had been appointed JP in 1943.

+ In 1863 importation of cattle regulations were liberalised in Southland with a role for JPs. Stock arriving in port from Australia could now be landed without a declaration signed overseas to the effect that the animals came from a disease-free environment. Under new rules the importer could swear a statement before a local Magistrate or 2 Justices of the Peace attesting that to best knowledge and belief the animals came from a “clean” area, free from infectious disease, and once the statutory form was completed the cattle could be landed.

+ For decades J.P.s swore-in volunteer members of Fire Police until the office was phased out in 2010. Once sworn, individuals had the power under the Fire Service Act of police constables at fires and other emergencies.

Fire Police cap badge c.1933

Auckland had the biggest Fire Police Unit which began in 1933 and over the years grew to a fire brigade in its own right of 60 volunteer members. The Unit’s first Captain was Harry Jane, J.P., who swore in the members annually.

+ J.P.s were regular witnesses at executions until capital punishment ended in 1957. The 1858 Act provided for any JPs who wished to be present to attend but that they must remain until after the hanging and then sign testimony that sentence had been carried out. A Justice of the Peace also made orders to any appropriate person who, within 8 hours of the hanging, was allowed to view the body.

+ J.P.s and the Riot Act. Prior to reform of the Crimes Act in 1987, J.P.s were among those authorised by law to read a clause incorporating the so-called “Riot Act”. Where 12 or more persons unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together for the disturbance of the public peace, a J.P. using a loud voice first had to command silence. And, after that, openly, and with equally loud voice make a proclamation – ”Her Majesty the Queen commands all of you to disperse immediately and to go quietly to your homes or to your lawful business, upon pain of being charged with an offence punishable by imprisonment for 5 years. God Save the Queen!”.

+ J.P.s had a role in the Destitute Persons Act 1908. Presented with a complaint on oath that a parent is not providing for a child under 16 years of age, a J.P. was able to issue a summons requiring the parent to show cause why a maintenance order should not be issued.

Sources :

Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

RCC 2014