Nova Scotia Criminal Records

Nova Scotia criminal records exist from approximately 1749 to the present, although they are more numerous for some years than they are for others, and in some counties than they are in others.

All of the databases mentioned on this webpage are free to search, and may be of assistance in helping you find your ancestors.

Before and During the Trial

As in other provinces, Nova Scotia criminal records include records generated before and during the trial, including police investigation reports, lists of evidence, coroners' or medical examiners' reports (where a death occurred under specified circumstances - see below), and other documents.

Victoria County Court House, Baddeck, Nova Scotia, 2010.
Public DomainVictoria County Court House, Baddeck, Nova Scotia, 2010. Public Domain

The Nova Scotia Archives houses a number of these documents, and has them organized in two principal groups, or ‘fonds’, in its database, the Bosa Nova Public Search database:

  1. The Attorney General fonds, and
  2. the Nova Scotia County Court fonds.

1. The Attorney General Fonds

The Department of the Attorney General fonds dates from 1849 to approximately 20 years prior to the current year. These records are on microfilm.

Nova Scotia criminal records prior to 1849 can be found in RG (Record Group) 1.

There are many files within the Attorney-General’s Fonds which are not relevant for genealogy purposes. Three sets of records which do appear to be extremely relevant with respect to Nova Scotia criminal records are the following:

  • Criminally insane case files
    • Some individuals were sent for psychiatric evaluation at the Nova Scotia Hospital (see below), either before or during a criminal trial. This could include, among other things, an assessment of his or her ability to understand the charges against him or her; ability to instruct counsel; and/or their ability to form the necessary intent to commit the crime of which they were accused.

      If an individual was found to be insane, s/he most likely would fail at all of the above.

      The outcome of such an assessment could determine (assuming the person was found guilty) whether the individual served his sentence in jail, or would be committed to a mental institution, the latter often being for an indefinite period of time.

      Files in this category of Nova Scotia criminal records include correspondence, forms, and reports relating to these individuals. This may well include a summary of the evidence in the case. They might also include:

      • initial police reports and charges;
      • remands from a judge;
      • psychiatric and medical evaluations;
      • correspondence with and recommendations to the Attorney-General;
      • warrants suspending a criminal proceeding and authorizing the long-term committal of an individual to the Nova Scotia Hospital; and
      • proceedings before the Nova Scotia Board of Review regarding what would eventually happen to these individuals.
Oldest courthouse in Canada (1803), Argyle, Nova ScotiArgyle Township, Nova Scotia Courthouse and Jail. Built in 1803, it has the distinction of being the oldest surviving courthouse in Canada. Wikimedia Commons

  • Records relating to criminal and penal matters
    • Among the many other records in this fonds, this series contains the following types of Nova Scotia criminal records:
      • files relating to extradition requests from other provinces, for prisoners to be arraigned in Nova Scotian courts; and
      • dockets and other files relating to criminal proceedings in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.
  • Coroners' and medical examiners' reports
    • Under the Coroners Act and its 1960 replacement the Fatalities Inquiry Act, local coroners or medical examiners were required to report on all deaths where there was reason to suspect foul play, the cause of death was unknown, the person died in jail, or some other statute required such a report.

      Coroners’ reports give the name and age of the individual; sometimes other information identifying the individual, such as the occupation of the deceased; the cause of death; and a recommendation about the need for a formal inquiry or inquest respecting the cause of the death. These reports may also include a summary of statements from police or other witnesses at the scene.

      The reports were filed with the Clerk of the Crown in the county where the death occurred. They also were reviewed by a provincial magistrate, who would decide whether it was necessary to hold a formal inquest or inquiry.

      The Attorney General’s office held the files after they were closed. The AG's office would receive either a report stating that no further action was required, or, where an inquest or inquiry occurred, a report including a summary of the testimony at the inquest, as well as the final outcome of the inquest or inquiry.

      The Coroners’ / Medical Examiner’s reports are arranged by county, and then in numerical order, using the numbers assigned by the court clerk. However, a chronological file listing is available. Searches can also be made through the online database.

      This series is not complete. For example, reports for the years 1963 to 1968 were destroyed before they were sent to the Archives.

      Not all of the coroners’ and medical examiners’ reports are located in the Attorney General’s records. Some are located in the Nova Scotia County Courts fonds, in the section entitled “District Number Three (Digby County) inquest records, 1911-1969”.

      More reports are in the Coroners' Inquests and Medical Reports collection, and include records for:

      • Halifax and Dartmouth (1755-1973),
      • Halifax County (1828-1928),
      • Cape Breton County (1906-1907),
      • Colchester County (1885-1973),
      • Cumberland County; (1931-1959),
      • Inverness County (1936-1971),
      • Lunenburg County (1824-1907),
      • Queens County (1818-1940) and
      • Shelburne County (1786-1904).

      The records for Halifax and Dartmouth are available on microfilm up to 1928.

2. The Nova Scotia County Courts Fonds

As noted above, Nova Scotia criminal records exist, in one form or another, from approximately 1749. Nova Scotia’s first courts opened around this time.

Initially, all court proceedings occurred in Halifax. However, as the population grew, there was a need for courts outside of the Halifax region.

This need initially was met by the provision of ‘circuit courts’, in which judges would travel to different outlying areas on specified dates and hold court in whatever location was deemed suitable. Sometimes, they even used a tavern for this purpose! I wonder how many criminal records were generated by a court in a tavern, for crimes committed in the same location!

By the mid-1800s, more permanent court rooms had been built in each county, and Nova Scotia was able to provide court services of all types throughout the province.

The number and variety of Nova Scotia criminal records varies from county to county. The Halifax County criminal records appear to be the most complete, and contain the following sub-sets of records:

  • Halifax County Court of General Sessions of the Peace - 1770-1886
    • Official record books - 1766-1990
    • Sub-series - Criminal proceedings books - 1749-1804; 1843-1972
  • The County Court Judge's Criminal Court of District Number One (Halifax County)
    • evidence books - 1890-1926
    • proceedings books - 1889-1973
    • cause books - 1921-1980
  • District Number One (Halifax County) evidence books - 1876-1927
  • Supreme Court of NS in Halifax County fonds
    • Series - Case files - 1750-1960
    • Series - Minute books - 1848-1888
    • Series - Proceedings books - 1749-1901
    • Series - Registers - 1875-1889

Most of the other counties have at least some circuit court records, and some combination of the above categories of Nova Scotia criminal records.

To view the NSARM’s holdings of Nova Scotia criminal records for each county, go to Archway , which allows you to search all county archival records, as well as those at the provincial level, all at the same time. In the search box, enter 'circuit court' or 'county court'. This should yield a list of fonds for the various counties with respect to criminal court cases.

A similar free Nova Scotia criminal records search in the Bosa Nova database, discussed above, may yield deeper information regarding the records in each fond.

After Conviction: Inmate Records

An important part of Nova Scotia criminal records, especially for the family history researcher, is what happened to the accused after the trial was over, assuming that s/he was found guilty.

According to the archivist at the Nova Scotia Archives, inmate and prison records are not housed at their facility. Rather, they are located at the county or municipal archives level.

The Municipality of the County of Halifax has an online index to the Halifax County Jail and the Halifax City Jail (Rockhead Farm) records.

Short sentences were usually served at the Halifax City jail (Rockhead Farm – see below), while individuals convicted of more serious crimes were sent to the North West Arm provincial penitentiary.

After Canadian confederation in 1867, those serving longer sentences for more serious crimes were sent to the Dorchester federal penitentiary in New Brunswick.

1903 Kings County Court House1903 Kings County Court House, now a museum. Wikimedia Commons

In those days, there were no separate prisons for men, for women, and for youth. Neither were there separate quarters for criminals and debtors. All were housed under one roof, although separate records were kept for criminals and for debtors. Those awaiting trial and those already convicted and serving their time also were held together.

The Halifax County Jail opened around 1860, and continued in operation until 1969.

Nova Scotia criminal records in this series include the following:

  • prisoner committal and discharge ledgers;
  • daily logs of the jailor;
  • notes made by the jail's visiting physician regarding the health of inmates;
  • lists of the property and cash of prisoners at the time of admittance;
  • police charge books;
  • financial records;
  • tenders;
  • night guard logs;
  • commitment books; and
  • the names of those charged under the Nova Scotia Liquor Control Act.

Halifax City Prison records also are housed at the Halifax municipal archives. This prison, known as Rockhead Farm, was a facility where men, women, and youth were required to do farm labour for the duration of their sentences.

Rockhead Farm operated from the late 1850s until 1969. Included in these Nova Scotia criminal records are inmate and visitor registries and reports, such as:

  • A record of conduct for each prisoner, which would contain identifying information such as name, age, and description; admittance and discharge dates; and length of term; and
  • Discipline of the prisoners, with the approval of City Prison Committee members.

Additional information regarding the City Prison can be found in the Committee of City Prison and the Committee on Public Health and Welfare fond.

The City Prison Committee members were responsible, among other things, for approving the discipline of prisoners. The minutes of their monthly meetings, therefore, may be of interest to those seeking their ancestors, with respect to a particular prisoner, and any discussion with respect to the recommended punishment for a misdemeanour while at Rockhead Farm. Minutes are available from 1861 to 1940.

There are also some relevant Nova Scotia criminal records in the Halifax City Prison Miscellaneous Reports and Registries fond. Tucked away in this section are the following:

  • some visitor registries;
  • a record book of parcels for visitors;
  • a postage record book for outgoing correspondence;
  • and
  • a daily record of the activities and significant occurrences within Rockhead.

A separate group of records contains the Rockhead inmate registries. There are separate volumes for Liquor Control Act offenders and for those charged under other Nova Scotia statutes.

The Registries provide an inmate’s name, age, and physical description; what country he was from; the crime he committed; the length of the sentence imposed; his religious affiliation; and any other comments. These Nova Scotia criminal records exist for the years 1854 – 1932, and 1945 to 1957.

These documents are available on 2 rolls of microfilm, copies of which are also available at the NSARM.

Since these records are arranged chronologically by admittance date, it is helpful to know when the person was admitted to Rockhead, or at least an approximate time period, in order to narrow the search.

Partial indexes by name and date of admittance do exist for some years.

Halifax County Home: Housing the Poor, Elderly, Orphans, and the Mentally Unfit

Those who were found to be mentally unfit, either in the course of the trial or before, would serve their sentence in a hospital or home for mental patients.

Records exist from 1886 to 1957 for municipal institutions engaged in assisting the poor and mentally ill in Halifax County, since the first such facility was built in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, around 1886. A working farm, it burned down in 1929.

Between 1929 and 1941, former residents of the farm, or County Home, were housed in the Halifax City Home.

The Halifax County Home and Mental Hospital was built in 1941. It housed the poor and mentally ill from all across the province.

At the end of the 1950s, the Halifax County Home and Mental Hospital obtained provincial funding, and began dealing only with mental patients from anywhere in the province. The poor were moved to another facility, named Ocean View Manor, in 1960.

Records from this period include, among other things, the superintendent’s returns listing the names of the residents, and providing some brief information about each of them.

Where Can I Find the Records?

If you live in or near Halifax, the Nova Scotia Archives are located at:

Nova Scotia Archives
6016 University Avenue
Halifax, Nova Scotia
B3H 1W4

General inquiries: (902) 424-6060
Fax: (902) 424-0628
To book meeting-room facilities: (902) 424-6075
To pre-book holdings for Saturday use: (by 3:00 p.m. Friday) (902) 424-6055

Their reading rooms are open Monday to Saturday, with extended hours on Wednesday evenings. Items which must be ordered, and are needed on Wednesday evenings or Saturdays, must be pre-booked. Check their website for details.

The Halifax Archives are located at:

81 Ilsley Ave., Unit 11
Burnside Industrial Park
Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

The Halifax Archives are open specified hours on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. See their website for details.

If you are unable to attend at those two locations, some of the materials mentioned in the indices above are available on microfilm. Contact the appropriate Archives, as outlined above, or your local library, to inquire about inter-library loans.

If the records you need can be specifically identified, requests for copies (a schedule of fees is on each website) can be submitted to the appropriate archives (provincial or municipal) by telephone or e-mail.

Archives staff are limited in the amount of research they can do for the public. Their websites include a list of paid researchers who can provide assistance.

I trust this page will be of assistance in finding the relevant Nova Scotia criminal records!

Go from 'Nova Scotia Criminal Records' to 'Canadian Criminal Records'

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