Biography of Chief Justice Robert Alexander Harrison

Honorable Robert Alexander Harrison, Q.C., D.C.L., and Chief Justice of Ontario, was a native of Montreal, where he was born on the 3rd of August, 1833. His parents were, Richard Harrison, a native of County Monaghan, Ireland, and Frances Hall, of Newtownbutler, County of Fermanagh. They immigrated to Canada soon after their marriage, and settled first at Markham, but afterwards removed to Toronto. Mr. Harrison received his education first at Upper Canada College. Received from University of Toronto the degree of B.C.L., and afterwards had degree of D.C.L. conferred upon him; began the study of law with Messrs. Robinson and Allen, and finished in the office of Crawford and Hagarty; in Michaelmas Term, 1855, was called to the Bar” with honors;”in 18.54, was appointed Chief Clerk of the Crown Law Department, and served in that capacity until 1859, when he entered upon the practice of his profession. Henceforward his career was one of the most prosperous which has been known at the Canada Bar; was Counsel for the Crown in several important cases, and was one of those chosen to defend the Ministers when they were accused of violating the Independence of Parliament Act.” In fact,” said an authority some years ago, “since 1859, when he entered into partnership with the late James Paterson and Mr. Thomas Hodgins, and commenced his practice at the Bar, there has been scarcely a case of public importance in which he has not been retained, and the number of briefs he yearly held must have entailed an immense amount of labor, anxiety, and thought. We believe no member of the profession in this country has held so many briefs as Mr. Harrison, during the time he has been at the Bar. At many of the Assizes for York and the City of Toronto, he has been retained in three-fourths of the criminal, and as large a proportion of the defended cases on the docket.” He must, indeed, have been an indomitable worker, and extremely systematic to have accomplished during these years, the work referred to, and at the same time have produced the amount of valuable legal literature which he did. In 1867 he was made a Q.C., and elected a Bencher of the Law Society in 1871; in 1867 and 1868, sat in the City Council; from 1867 to 1872, represented West Toronto, as a Conservative, in the House of Commons, declining a renomination. As already intimated, he wrote much, being a high authority in many branches of jurisprudence; published several works which are recognized authorities in the Courts; was a contributor to the Merchants’ Magazine, the Daily Colonist, and various other periodicals and newspapers; was one of the founders and editors of the Local Courts’ Gazette, and subsequently editor of the Upper Canada Law Journal.

In 1875 Mr. Harrison was elevated to the Chief Justiceships of the Court of Queen’s Bench ‘of Ontario. He stood, at the time of his appointment, at the head of the law profession in Canada, and his appointment was received with general satisfaction, as one not more honorable to himself than in the public interest, and to his enviable reputation of a sound lawyer, he added that of an upright judge. He found the business of his Court largely in arrears, but his untiring energy soon had it clear. He found no time for idleness, but, as before, worked almost incessantly, and doubtless the immense strain upon his energies, which were taxed to their utmost, hastened his death, which occurred after a short illness, on the 1st of November, 1878. In his death Ontario lost one of the greatest men that has adorned its judiciary, and a large circle of friends and fellowcitizens lost one who had endeared himself to them by his many excellent qualities, both of head and heart. At a meeting of the Bar, resolutions of respect and condolence were passed, among which appear the following : ” At the Bar he became a successful counsel, and ever maintained the integrity of the true lawyer.

As a judge, he was clear in the exposition of legal principles, and honest and upright in his administration of his judicial duties. In social life his genial disposition won for him the affection and respect of all who knew him. As a law writer, he gave to the profession, and to the public municipal bodies in this Province, legal works of great learning, and of great practical value; and in his active, busy life, he furnished an example of the attainment of distinction at the Bar and on the Bench, by earnest work, united to high intellectual qualities.”

Judge Harrison was first married, June 1, 1859, to Anna, daughter of the late John McClure Muckle, Esq., of Quebec. She died in March, 1866, leaving one daughter. He was again married in January, 1868, to Kennithina Johanna McKay, only daughter of the late Hugh Scobie, Esq., editor and proprietor of The British Colonist newspaper. By this union there is one daughter living.

Although Chief Justice Harrison was in many respects a most remarkable man, possessing abilities of a very high order, he owed his advancement and great success wholly to his own energy of character, coupled with high minded rectitude of conduct in all his relations with mankind, and his life is an eminent example of usefulness, well worthy of emulation.



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