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One of the first, if not the first, among the prominent members of the Toronto Bar, is Mr. Bethune, of whose career we give an epitome in this sketch, a man of decided talent, distinguished in his profession, and an acknowledged leader in his chosen sphere of usefulness.
James Bethune is a native Canadian, and first saw the light of day on the 7th of July, 1840, at Glengarry, Ontario. He is descended from two old and well known Scotch families, paternally, from the Bethunes of Fifeshire, and maternally, from the Mc Kenzies of Ingleshire, Scotland. His great-grandfather, Angus Bethune, was a U. E. Loyalist, and settled in Glengarry, Ont., in the year 1778, where were born Duncan Bethune, our subject’s grandfather, and Angus Bethune, his father, who became a farmer and a well known man in Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, being for many years Deputy Sheriff of those united counties. The mother of James was Ann McKenzie, daughter of John McKenzie, of Glengarry.
At an early age our subject was sent to the University of Queen’s College, Kingston, where he spent two years, going thence to University College, Toronto. He graduated in 1861 in the University of Toronto, receiving the degree of Bachelor of Laws. While pursuing his University studies, Mr. Bethune was also a student at law, first with Judge Pringle, of Cornwall, and afterwards with the Hon. Edward Blake, Toronto; was called to the Bar, U. C., in Easter Term, 1862, and also to the Bar of Quebec, in 1869. He first began practice at Cornwall, in 1862, alone, and three years later was appointed County Crown Attorney for Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry.
In 1870, he resigned his office of County Attorney to become a candidate for Stormont in the general elections in 1872, for the Ontario Provincial Parliament. In this contest Mr. Bethune was unsuccessful, but upon the sitting member being unseated, and a new election taking place in January, 1872, he was returned; and being re elected at the general elections in 1875, continued to represent this constituency until June, 1879, when he declined to again become a candidate, owing to his extensive practice and the importance of devoting to it his whole time and attention. In November, 1870, he had removed to Toronto, and in conjunction with Hon. Edward Blake, the present Vice-Chancellor Blake, and Mr. J. K. Kerr, established the law firm of Messrs. Blake, Kerr and Bethune.
Upon the elevation to the Bench of the late Chief Justice Harrison and Chief Justice Moss, he associated himself with their former partners Messrs. F. (now Justice) Osier and Charles Moss and formed the well known law firm of Messrs. Bethune, Osier and Moss, which continued until the appointment of Mr. Osier to the Bench. The name of the firm then became, as at present, Messrs. Bethune, Moss, Falconbridge and Hoyles, one of the largest and most important in Toronto, and doing a very extensive business.
Mr. Bethune was elected a Bencher of the Law Society of Ontario, 1875, and previous to that time was for some years its Lecturer on General Jurisprudence.
Mr. Bethune was one of the Queen’s Counsel appointed by the Ontario Government, and when the constitutionality of the appointment was questioned in argument in a recent case in the Supreme Court, he resigned the silk and resumed the stuff gown. While there have been differing opinions as to the wisdom of this course, there has been none as to the high sense of honor that would not permit him to retain a distinction, the validity of which was open even to the slightest imputation. His action in this respect is more fully explained in the following, from the Globe, of Nov. 21, 1879:
At the opening of the Court of Common Pleas yesterday morning, Mr. Bethune appeared habited in a stuff gown, and took his seat outside the Bar of the Court. Upon his rising to make a motion,
Chief Justice Wilson said: Mr. Bethune, I dare say some gentleman within the Bar will lend you a silk gown if you have forgotten yours.
Mr. Bethune, in reply said; My Lords, I think it is due to the Court that I should state why I am not this morning within the Bar. I was present in the Supreme Court when the judgment of that Court was delivered in the case known as the Great Seal Case. All the judges agreed that the Governor-General had the sole prerogative right to appoint Queen’s Counsel in Canada. Three of the judges held that the statute of Nova Scotia, which is the same as that in Ontario, if it attempted to invade the prerogative right in question, was void, and that persons appointed by the Lieutenant-Governor in pursuance of the statute of the Legislature were not Queen’s Counsel properly so called. Justices Henry and Gwynne said that the Act of the Legislature was ultra vires. Mr. Justice Taschereau held that the Provincial Legislature might establish an order of precedence as between barristers who were not Queen’s Counsel, so created by the Governor-General, but that the members of that order were not Queen’s Counsel any more than a nobleman who was created such by a statute of the Manitoba Legislature would be a lord. Inasmuch as this judgment was from a judgment in a Provincial Court, it seemed to me, and I am still of that opinion, that I ought not to wear an honor my title to which is said to he doubtful.
Chief Justice Wilson I am very sorry, Mr. Bethune, that you are not within the Bar, but after hearing the judgment of the Supreme Court in the matter, I think you act quite right. However, if we cannot hear you in your old place we shall be glad to hear you without the Bar.
Mr. Bethune then proceeded to make his motion.
Shortly afterwards Mr. Thomas Ferguson, who holds his patent as Queen’s Counsel from the Lieutenant-Governor, desired a further expression of opinion from the Court as to the propriety of Queen’s Counsel so created remaining within the Bar.
The Chief Justice said: We think Mr. Bethune has acted quite properly in declining to wear a silk gown when the judgment of our highest Court has questioned his right to wear that honor. We do not intend this to be a decision of the Court, but merely an expression of our opinion in the matter. Were I in Mr. Bethune’s place I should have acted precisely as he has done.
Mr. Justice Galt remarked that he also considered that Mr. Bethune had taken a proper course.
Mr. Bethune’s standing as a lawyer is briefly summed up as follows, by one afforded good facilities for observation: He holds a distinguished position at the Ontario Bar, and his ready perception of the salient points of a case, his clearness of statement, the skill with which he applies the legal principles applicable to it, the candor with which he admits the indefensible points of the case, and his firmness to the other side, have combined to cause his assistance to be sought for in important matters, and give the judges before whom he appears, a sense of security from mere ad captandum arguments. His practice is an extensive one, and ranges over all the Courts in which judicial matters are presentedfrom the Assize Court upwards in Common Law, and Equity, to the Supreme Court. He has been engaged in many of the important criminal trials, election trials, cases involving constitutional questions, and cases of magnitude in equity, that have arisen during the last ten years, and in all, he has so borne himself as to make him a reputation for ability, honor and integrity.
In politics Mr. Bethune has always been a Reformer, supporting that party while in Parliament, and advocates the expediency of compulsory voting, having introduced a measure in favor of that reform, in 1872.
In religious views he is a Scotch Presbyterian, and is an Elder in St. Andrew’s church in Toronto, taking an active part and a lively interest in the promotion of its welfare.
Oct. 13, 1860, at Cornwall, he married Elizabeth, daughter of Dr. Rattray, of that place, and by this union has four children.