SUCKLING, GEORGE, lawyer and first attorney general of the province of Quebec; m. 8 Sept. 1759, as his second wife, Frances Duport at Halifax, Nova Scotia; fl. 1752–80.
In July 1752 George Suckling was practising law in Halifax, where he had immigrated some time before. He was also a merchant from 1753 to 1758, in partnership with William Nesbitt. Acting clerk of the General Court in 1753, he was elected to the first House of Assembly of Nova Scotia in October 1758 and soon attracted attention in Halifax and London when he violently attacked John Collier*, a judge of the Court of Vice-Admiralty, for refusing to give the house the table of the fees collected by that court. In February 1759 Suckling was accused of misappropriation of funds; although he was exonerated by the house, Governor Charles Lawrence* remained convinced of his guilt, calling him “a rascally Attorney.”
When Suckling arrived in Quebec is not known. On 16 Feb. 1764 the king appointed him attorney general of the province, an office for which London merchants doing business with Canada had strongly recommended him. In this capacity his task was to give legal advice to the governor and the Council of Quebec, and to institute proceedings in the name of the crown. His commission was dated 24 Aug. 1764. A month later he was also named advocate general of the Court of Vice-Admiralty.
At the request of the Council, Suckling, with Chief Justice William Gregory, prepared the ordinance establishing civil courts. This ordinance, enacted on 17 Sept. 1764, was exceptionally important since it created a judicial organization for the province. It showed clearly, however, the juridical incompetence of the chief justice and the attorney general. The ordinance divided the province into two districts, Quebec and Montreal. It gave judicial powers to bailiffs, justices of the peace, a court of common pleas, a court of king’s bench, assize courts, the governor in council, and the king in Privy Council. The jurisdiction of the bailiffs in both civil and criminal matters was limited. In court of first instance justices of the peace had authority in civil matters to judge suits dealing with property up to a value of 30 louis (English pounds); in appeal they could review the bailiffs’ decisions. They had quite wide jurisdiction in criminal matters but it was derived more from their commissions than from the ordinance. The Court of Common Pleas, confined to civil actions, was to judge any suit involving more than 10 louis. The Court of King’s Bench was authorized in the first instance to judge any action at law, in both civil and criminal matters; in appeal its jurisdiction extended to decisions of justices of the peace in civil matters when the object of litigation was worth more than 10 louis, and to those of the Court of Common Pleas when the object of litigation was worth 20 louis or more. The assize courts were held only rarely, although they had considerable authority in both civil and criminal matters. The ordinance gave the governor in council the right to uphold or reject appeals from judgements of the Court of King’s Bench and the Court of Common Pleas in civil matters where the object of litigation exceeded £300 in value, whereas the king in his Privy Council could do the same on appeals from decisions of the governor in council when the object of litigation was worth £500 or more.
The chief justice and the attorney general erroneously believed that the Royal Proclamation of 1763 introduced British civil law into the province. Wishing to lessen the effects of this change of law and to accustom Canadians to the laws of Great Britain, they created the Court of Common Pleas to administer “equity,” a vague term which the drafters of the ordinance seem to have taken in its ordinary meaning of natural justice and not in the technical sense which is given it in British law. In practice the judges of that court most often applied French laws; thus the Court of Common Pleas helped maintain those laws more than it accustomed Canadians to British laws. This judicial system was, moreover, quite illogical. When the object of litigation was worth more than 10 louis, the plaintiff could institute proceedings in this Court of Common Pleas or in the Court of King’s Bench, which under the ordinance was supposed to apply British laws. The plaintiff thus had the choice of the laws he wanted to see applied. On appeal the situation was even worse, since there was a right of appeal from the Court of Common Pleas to the Court of King’s Bench. Consequently a decision of the Court of Common Pleas based upon equity, according to the terms of the ordinance drawn up by the chief justice and the attorney general, had, by virtue of the same ordinance, to be overturned in the Court of King’s Bench if British laws had not been applied. This arrangement, combined with the incompetence of most of the judges and justices of the peace, the use of English only, except in the Court of Common Pleas, and the slowness and exorbitant cost of justice, inevitably gave rise to judicial anarchy.
On the basis of Suckling’s legal opinion, Governor Murray set up a court of chancery in the province on 1 Nov. 1764; in accordance with the generally accepted view at the time, the attorney general declared that the governor had the authority to set up such a court because, having been appointed keeper of the great seal by the king, he had in fact been appointed chancellor of the province.
Suckling did not possess the qualities required for the post of attorney general. He was a mediocre jurist, and he was acquainted neither with the French language nor with French law. He got along badly with Gregory, and even published criticisms of the chief justice in a supplement to the Quebec Gazette on 23 May 1765. Consequently, at Murray’s request, Suckling was removed from office in 1766 and replaced by Francis Maseres*. He retained his office as advocate general, however, and practised law in the province. The ex-attorney general did not share his successor’s ideas about British bankruptcy law, among other questions. Maseres advised fur-trader Lucius Levy Solomons, who had been ruined and wanted to reach a final settlement with his creditors, to take advantage of the British laws on bankruptcy – laws that he claimed were in force in the province – and to have one of his creditors request a commission which, among other things, would secure the appointment of assignees charged with liquidating his assets and settling his bankruptcy. The granting of the commission by Governor Guy Carleton*, on the recommendation of Maseres and Chief Justice William Hey, upset the merchants, who protested vigorously. They alleged that the application of such laws would ruin them since they cut two ways: if they assisted merchants seeking bankruptcy, they might also put into bankruptcy merchants hoping to resolve their difficulties by other means. To defend his and Solomons’ position, Maseres wrote an abstract of these laws and sent it to Carleton with a reply to the merchants’ objections. William Grant* had the abstract published in the Quebec Gazette on 10 and 17 Dec. 1767 under the signature of “a Merchant.” According to Maseres, it was Suckling and Thomas Aylwin who defended the merchants’ interests in an article published on 24 and 31 December that was signed “A Friend to Liberty, tho’ not a Merchant,” and that attacked the attorney general in harsh terms.
In 1768 Suckling had differences with Carleton. As advocate general he had brought an action in the Court of Vice-Admiralty, but the governor had ordered him to suspend the proceedings. Suckling protested to Hillsborough, the secretary of state for the American Colonies, and declared that this order constituted a violation of the rights and jurisdiction of both the Court of Vice-Admiralty and the advocate general.
Having disposed of his belongings, Suckling left the province in 1771, without permission and without officially resigning his office of advocate general. In October of that year, however, he was replaced by Henry Kneller. In London, on 25 Feb. 1775, Suckling presented a petition to the king, asking for financial aid or a post; he published it in the Quebec Gazette on 7 September. In the petition he stated that he had already addressed himself to the “Lords Commissioners of your Majesty’s Treasury,” to Lord North, and to the Earl of Dartmouth, secretary of state for the American Colonies, but that he had obtained only a small sum of money. On 12 March 1776 he asked Lord George Germain for the post of secretary of Georgia or financial aid to keep him until he found employment in the legal field or else for money to enable him to settle in the West Indies with his family. His repeated demands finally met with success: in 1780 he was chief justice of the Virgin Islands. The date of his appointment is unknown, as are the date and place of his death.
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