BURNS, ROBERT EASTON, lawyer and judge; b. 26 Dec. 1805 in Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Upper Canada, eldest of the five children of the Reverend John Burns and his wife Jane; d. 12 Jan. 1863 at Toronto, Canada West.
Robert Easton Burns (named after the Reverend Robert Easton* of Montreal) was the son of a Presbyterian minister of the Associate Synod of Scotland who emigrated to Upper Canada from Pennsylvania in 1804 and settled first in Stamford, then in 1806 at Niagara. Burns was educated at home and later at the Niagara District Grammar School where his father served as master. In 1822, at age 16, he was admitted as a student-at-law with John Breakenridge in Niagara. Burns completed his legal training in 1827 and was admitted to the bar of Upper Canada in that year. He established an office in St Catharines, and for the next nine years practised successfully in the Niagara, St Catharines, and Hamilton areas.
His ability led to his appointment as judge of the Niagara District on 16 July 1836. Burns, however, was not happy with the routine duties of a district court, and he resigned his post in the spring of 1838. He moved to Toronto and entered into a partnership with Christopher Alexander Hagerman*, then attorney general of Upper Canada. Hagerman had an extensive practice and needed a partner to relieve him of some of its work. Burns practised extensively in the Court of Chancery, and followed that court when it moved with the seat of government to Kingston in 1841. In 1844 the court moved back to Toronto, and, upon his return, Burns entered into a partnership with Oliver Mowat* and Philip M. M. S. VanKoughnet, two recently admitted lawyers. The firm of Burns, Mowat, and VanKoughnet was one of the largest in Toronto at that time. On 19 Aug. 1844 Burns was appointed judge of the Home District; he gave up his partnership with Mowat and VanKoughnet the next year when an act was passed forbidding district court judges from engaging in private practice. He served the court for four years, during which time he wrote A letter on the subject of division courts (1847), his only published work. Addressed to the attorney general of Canada West, it suggested improvements in the system of division courts, especially in the area of jurisdiction over small claims, based on legislative changes in Great Britain in 1846.
Burns resigned from the bench in 1848 and entered again into private practice, this time with John Duggan of Toronto. However, in late 1849 he and Henry John Boulton were nominated to fill the vacancy on the Court of Queen’s Bench left by the death of Hagerman. Through the influence of Francis Hincks*, Burns received the appointment as puisne judge of this court on 21 Jan. 1850. He sat on the court until his death. During his career, Burns was an active bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada, serving on several committees and as treasurer of the society in 1849–50. He was popular with the law students and was for many years elected president of the Osgoode Club, a student organization.
He was also active in the affairs of the University of Toronto. On 20 July 1848, he, and John Wetenhall* and Joseph Workman*, were appointed by the government of Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine and Robert Baldwin* commissioners to investigate the financial affairs of the University of King’s College and of Upper Canada College. Their report, presented in 1852, was severely critical of the financial management of both institutions [see Boys]. On 11 Dec. 1857 Burns was appointed chancellor of the University of Toronto, succeeding William Hume Blake, and he retained this post until the end of 1861.
Burns was married first, on 10 Feb. 1835, to Anne Flora Taylor of St Catharines by whom he had four sons. She died in September 1850, and Burns married in 1856 Britannia Warton of Toronto; she died in 1858. Burns himself died at his Toronto home in 1863.
His legal career was not brilliant but he applied himself diligently to his work as lawyer and judge, and his decisions were well considered and well delivered. He was noted for his integrity and liberal views. “He was,” writes David B. Read*, “eminently a self-made man, of plodding habits and honesty of purpose, which obtained favourable recognition from all who knew him.”
R. E. Burns, A letter on the subject of division courts: with proposed alterations in the jurisdiction and details of the system (Toronto, 1847). Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, Final report of the commissioners of inquiry into the affairs of King’s College University, and Upper Canada College (Quebec, 1852). Globe, 13 Jan. 1863. Leader, 13 Jan. 1863. Upper Canada Law Journal (Toronto), IX (1863), 29–31. Read, Lives of the judges. William Gregg, History of the Presbyterian Church in the dominion of Canada . . . (Toronto, 1885). Historic sketches of the pioneer work and the missionary, educational and benevolent agencies of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (Toronto, 1903).