PINSENT, Sir ROBERT JOHN, lawyer, politician, and judge; b. 27 July 1834 in Port de Grave, Nfld, son of Robert John Pinsent* and Louisa Broom; m. first c. 1856 Anna Brown Cooke, and they had six children; m. secondly c. 1873 Emily Hettie Sabine Homfray, and they had three children; d. 28 April 1893 in England.
At the time of Robert John Pinsent’s birth, his family had lived in the Conception Bay area of Newfoundland for four generations, and his father served as a magistrate there. Robert Jr was educated at the grammar school in Harbour Grace under John Irvine Roddick, father of Sir Thomas George Roddick*. He read law in St John’s with Bryan Robinson* and was admitted as a solicitor in 1855 and as a barrister a year later (he was named qc in 1865). Pinsent’s career as a trial lawyer progressed rapidly from his first year of practice, especially after 1858 when Robinson was appointed to the Supreme Court. From that year until 1880, when he himself was raised to the bench, Pinsent was the foremost trial lawyer in Newfoundland.
In 1859 he accepted a seat on the Legislative Council. A more active political career began with his election to the House of Assembly in a by-election for the district of Port de Grave in January 1867. He won by acclamation and with no party ties. In a letter to the voters he had taken no position on confederation, but the Harbour Grace Standard, and Conception Bay Advertiser had reported that he opposed the Quebec resolutions. The climax of his short political career came two years later when he joined the supporters of confederation, led by Frederic Bowker Terrington Carter and Ambrose Shea*. Pinsent again offered himself for his home district but this time the goodwill to a local son had little effect. The constituency was overwhelmingly anti-confederate, and Pinsent was decisively defeated. Although he had used the most cautious approach in addressing the electors on the benefits of confederation, the tide of popular feeling was against him. Moreover, voters may have remembered that he had taken an opposing position in 1867. The true feeling of the campaign can be seen in a note addressed by Pinsent to the returning officer protesting the intimidation of confederate voters at Bay Roberts, the largest town in the district.
Before it resigned the following year, the Carter–Shea administration reappointed Pinsent to the Legislative Council. There he continued to defend confederation against an overwhelming majority of anti-confederates. In the election of 1873 he unwisely changed sides and stood for the anti-confederate party of Charles James Fox Bennett*. It won the election, but Pinsent himself was defeated in the district of Trinity Bay. He also suffered because the Orange order was strong in the district and he, as a member of the Church of England establishment, was viewed as not Protestant enough for the voters. After 1873 he returned to his confederate position and carried on the battle for union long after it had been abandoned by other Newfoundland politicians. In 1878 he contested Burin and was once again defeated. Pinsent was about to run in St John’s West in the fall of 1879 when a vacancy on the bench of the Supreme Court was offered to him. He wisely accepted the position and was appointed the following spring.
Pinsent’s political career was particularly unsuccessful because his support for confederation made him virtually unelectable in the 1860s and 1870s. Also, his party-switching, his difficulty in accepting defeat (on more than one occasion he petitioned the governor to disallow the results of an election), and his intense Anglicanism all hindered a political career in that period. He did have some personal success during the short time he was in the House of Assembly in 1867–69. He was acting attorney general during Carter’s absence in 1869, and the same year he chaired a select committee on the Geological Survey of Newfoundland. However, his successes were few. He was too rigid to adapt to an amoral political system and play by its rules, and it was his failure to do so that doomed his career.
On the bench Pinsent’s decisions tended towards simplicity and avoided the excessive citation of precedents. This approach suited the wide range of cases that came before the Newfoundland court in the late 19th century. In fact many precedents in Newfoundland derived from the customs of the country, such as relationships in the cod fishery, which had evolved over the previous century.
Two of the cases during Pinsent’s tenure on the court were especially important and were appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. They were Nfld. Railway Co. and Evans and Adamson v. the Government of Nfld. (1887) and Baird et al v. Walker (1891). The first case concerned the financial collapse of a railway construction company. Particularly important was the Newfoundland government’s claim to the assets of the unfinished railway for non-performance of the contract signed by the builders. Pinsent ruled that the “good name” of Newfoundland would be damaged if the government were able to seize the assets of the railway. The Judicial Committee held the contrary view, that the government had the right of seizure based both on precedent and on legal doctrine. In the case of Baird et al v. Walker [see James Baird*], the right of a British naval officer enforcing French fishing privileges to trespass on private property was denied by the Newfoundland court, consisting of Pinsent and Chief Justice Carter. They stated that although wide powers may be given to naval officers in time of war, such was not the case in peace-time and treaty rights could not infringe those of the citizen. The judges were fully supported by the Judicial Committee. This case had wide ramifications for the enforcement of treaty rights.
Outside his professional life, Pinsent, like his father, was an active and prominent member of the Church of England in Newfoundland. He sat on the church synod and its executive for many years and served as vice-president of the Colonial and Continental Society. In 1880 he received a dcl from the archbishop of Canterbury for his services to the church. As might be expected, Pinsent was also active in the Law Society of Newfoundland and in the Royal Colonial Institute, of which he was a fellow. He was knighted in 1890.
Sir Robert John Pinsent continued to be a highly capable and distinguished judge of the Supreme Court until his health deteriorated. He died suddenly in 1893 while visiting relatives and seeking medical treatment in England.
Robert John Pinsent’s publications include Confederation and amendment of the local constitution considered (St John’s, 1867) and Nfld., House of Assembly, Select committee upon the Geological Survey of Newfoundland, Report (St John’s, 1869).
Cathedral of St John the Baptist (Anglican) (St John’s), Reg. of baptisms, 1834–79 (mfm. at PANL). PANL, GN1/3, 1864–84. Port de Grave, Nfld., Anglican Church, reg. of baptisms, 1827–69 (photocopies at PANL). PRO, CO 199/63, 65, 70 (mfm. at PANL). St Paul’s Anglican Church (Harbour Grace, Nfld.), Reg. of baptisms, 1834–79 (copies at PANL). The book of Newfoundland, ed. J. R. Smallwood et al. (6v., St John’s, 1937–75), 6:60–65. Decisions of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland, ed. E. P. Morris et al. (St John’s), 7 (1884–96). Nfld. Men (Mott), 7. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 28 April 1893. Morning Chronicle (St John’s), 21–22 Nov. 1873. Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, 31 Jan. 1879 Times and General Commercial Gazette (St John’s), 4 Feb. 1874, 29 April 1893.