The Nova Scotia Bar was established in December 1749, shortly after the founding of Halifax. It grew slowly, with a significant influx of refugee Loyalist lawyers who moved here during and after the American War of Independence (1775-1783).

The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society can trace its initial roots to the formation of a library in 1797, when the Honourable Chief Justice Thomas A. L. Strange donated his personal collection to the province for the use of his fellow lawyers. However, it was not until 1825 that a formal regulatory organization was established with the formation of the Society of Nova Scotia Barristers.

In March 1811, the Province enacted its first legal profession act, called an Act for the better regulation of attorneys, solicitors and proctors, practising in the Courts of Law and Equity in this Province, S.N.S. 1811, c.3. At the time, it was just the second legal profession act in British North America. Drafted by Attorney-General Richard John Uniacke, the Act provided that all of Nova Scotia’s lawyers would henceforth be barristers, rather than simply attorneys.

The Act was not permanent but was subject to seven-year periodic renewals. Renewed once in 1818, it was allowed to expire in March 1825 without being replaced. Its non-renewal led directly and within days to formation of the Society of Nova Scotia Barristers. In 1858, the Society incorporated and was renamed the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society. In 1899, passage of the Barristers and Solicitors Act made it compulsory for all practising lawyers to be members of the Society.  

Through the years, many members of the Society’s Council went on to join the judiciary. Two late 19th century Presidents of the Society went on to become Prime Minister of Canada: the Rt. Hon. Sir John Sparrow David Thompson, and the Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Laird Borden.

Other advancements and milestones:

  • 1900: Nova Scotia’s first African Nova Scotian lawyer, James Robinson Johnston, was called to the Bar.
  • 1918: Frances Lilian Fish is the first woman called to the Bar, following an amendment to the Barristers and Solicitors Act confirming that women could join the Bar.
  • 1949: Knowledge of Latin dropped as a requirement for Bar Admission
  • 1957: Society establishes Lawyers' Fund for Client Compensation
  • 1972: Professional liability insurance becomes mandatory for all practising lawyers.
  • 1975: Bar Admission Course introduced.
  • 1986: Lay members (now called Public Representatives) appointed to Council.
  • 1988: Legal Ethics and Professional Conduct: A Handbook for Lawyers in Nova Scotia becomes the official set of rules to guide the professional responsibility of lawyers.
  • 1993: James A. Michael is the first Mi’kmaq lawyer called to the Bar; Jill Hamilton QC is elected the Society’s first woman President.
  • 2012: The new Code of Professional Conduct comes into force on January 1, replacing the Legal Ethics Handbook.  

For further information about the Society’s history: 

NSBS historical timeline (1749 – present)  

Society Presidents (1860 – present) 

For a more detailed account of the history of the Legal Profession Act, see this article from the October 2011 edition of the Society Record: “2011: A 200-year odyssey of regulating Nova Scotia’s legal profession,” by Barry Cahill, Professional information access and privacy administrator. Mr. Cahill has written a history of the Society that is awaiting publication.