One of the most dynamic areas of law in the nineteenth-century Anglo-American world was that of water rights, or, as it was typically denoted then, “riparian rights”. This body of law dealt with the relative rights of owners of land adjacent to water—riparian land—to use the flowing waters, whether for power, irrigation, transportation, fishing, or waste disposal. The historical development of the law in this field in the nineteenth century has been analysed from several points of view, including economic property theory and Marxian legal history. Transnational aspects of the subject have not been neglected, as some have highlighted the transatlantic—that is, Anglo-American—framework in which this body of doctrine developed, and others have examined the use of Continental, civil law sources by some of the American jurists responsible for that development. Yet the inter-imperial aspect of this story, in particular the meeting of the laws of the British and French Empires, has gone unremarked.
The court case of Miner v. Gilmour can be seen as the epicentre of this inter-imperial encounter. The case began as a conflict in the 1850s between two prominent citizens of the Eastern Townships village of Granby, in the part of Canada then known as Canada East (in the half century preceding 1841 called Lower Canada, the southern part of today’s Quebec). Harlow Miner’s tannery on the south bank of the Yamaska River, the town’s major industrial enterprise, was powered by water directed from a dam in the river, but Francis Gilmour, the town’s store-keeper, had been opening a sluice on the north side of the dam in order to allow the water to flow through and power his gristmill downstream. In order to put a stop to Gilmour’s interference with his business, Miner brought a lawsuit in the Superior Court of the District of Montreal. When the court ruled in Miner’s favour, ordering Gilmour to cease and desist diverting water away from Miner’s mill, Gilmour brought an appeal to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Canada. Here the decision went in his favour, and the court dismissed the plaintiff’s suit. Unsatisfied with this result, it was Miner who appealed this time, making use of the only remaining judicial recourse available to him, an appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London.
The Privy Council, an organ of the British monarchy, was for years the executive body through which British overseas possessions were governed, also hearing appeals from the courts of these colonies. In 1833, in an effort to give these appeals a more judicial character, Parliament created the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, composed primarily of judges from other British high courts. Though formally not a court of law—the members of the committee did not wear judicial garb, they sat around a table with the parties’ counsel and their decisions were, strictly speaking, merely recommendations to the monarch, who would then issue an order giving force to the recommendation—in practice it functioned like a court, and was treated as such by all. This new judicial body was tasked with hearing appeals from overseas possessions (as well as from the British court of Admiralty and ecclesiastical courts).
The Judicial Committee, hearing cases from far-flung possessions around the globe, was an imperial institution par excellence. The nature of litigation in the common law, adversarial, system—in which the parties, not the state, generally determined if and when court proceedings would be conducted, and on what legal grounds—meant that the court’s agenda was largely shaped by the decisions of litigants in the courts below. Nonetheless the Judicial Committee’s worldwide jurisdiction, along with its judges’ parallel tenures on other British high courts, gave it a potentially harmonizing and homogenizing role; ‘The assumption was that there could be cohesion and certainty in the legal system of the Empire only if appeals could be referred up to a judicial body in London.’ (Cornish, Lobban, Smith, "Empire’s Law", p. 245)
At the same time the Judicial Committee was in effect an inter-imperial institution.