The first Statute enacted in South Australia was passed on 2 January 1837 only a few days after the arrival of the "Buffalo" at Holdfast Bay. It provided for the establishment of Courts of Petty Sessions to be presided over by Magistrates and Justices of the Peace. Not only were some of the provisions of the Statute controversial, the salary to be offered to the first Magistrate was only £100 per annum (although the incumbent had a right of private practice). As a result, Governor Hindmarsh was unable to find a solicitor willing to accept appointment. As a consequence, the court contemplated by the Statute was never constituted.

During the first twelve months of the colony, the maintenance of law and order was chaotic. A number of Justices of the Peace had been appointed and they occasionally sat pursuant to the powers inherent in their commissions. The first court seems to have been held at Holdfast Bay on 7 January 1837 when Robert Gouger, the Colonial Secretary, sat with another Justice of the Peace to resolve a quarrel between a master and servant. During this period there was no Police Force. The first Police Officers were sworn in in 1838. There was no prison. For six months prisoners were confined in the "Buffalo" itself. When the ship returned to England, prisoners were for a period incarcerated in another vessel (the "Tam O’Shanter") and later were chained and held in tents.

During the first twelve months there was no provision by which settlers could recover small debts.

In November 1837 an Act was passed establishing the Resident Magistrates Court which was to be presided over by a Magistrate. Mr Henry R. Wigley (an English solicitor) was appointed the Resident Magistrate. He first sat on 20 December 1837. He retained a right of private practice. For twelve months he sat in a building in Gilles Arcade, not far removed from the site of the Queen’s Theatre which still exists. From 1838 to 1840 he sat in a building on the northern side of Currie Street, just east of Light Square. The site is now occupied by the University of South Australia.

In 1840/41 the court returned to Gilles Arcade although to a different building. From 1841 until 1843 the court occupied a house owned by Captain Lipson (Harbor Master at Port Adelaide) situated on the northern side of Currie Street, just east of Peel Street. In 1843, for a short period, the Resident Magistrate was required by Governor Grey, as a cost cutting measure, to use the Police Commissioner’s Office at his residence which was in the parklands between North Terrace and the River Torrens almost opposite Morphett Street.

In 1843 the province was insolvent. Governor Grey considerably reduced the size of the Police Force. He decided that the Police Commissioner, having reduced administrative responsibilities, had time to hear charges of minor offences. Major O'Halloran was first to bear the title of Commissioner of Police having been appointed in 1840. One Henry Inman had been Officer in Charge of the police force as Inspector and Superintendent from the formation of the Force in 1838 until 1840. In May 1843, Major O'Halloran was directed by the Governor to hear criminal cases. He refused and resigned. Mr B.T. Finnis (a career soldier) was appointed Police Commissioner and Police Magistrate in 1843. At first he heard only charges of minor offences under the several Police Acts but gradually, sitting with two Justices of the Peace, he undertook more and more of the Resident Magistrate's work. Subsequent Police Commissioners, Captain Dashwood and Alexander Tolmer also acted as Police Magistrate. Captain Dashwood also sat at Port Adelaide as Police Magistrate. He was then appointed Stipendiary Magistrate at Port Adelaide (and was there for a little over twelve months) before returning to the post of Police Commissioner in October 1850.

One Henry Jickling acted as Police Magistrate for a year in 1852. He was a somewhat unsuccessful chancery barrister from England. He was also the Acting Judge of the province after Judge Jeffcott's tragic drowning at the mouth of the River Murray. Jickling acted as Judge until the arrival of Judge Cooper. He had, until then, been clerk of the Resident Magistrate's Court. He also succeeded Charles Mann as Master of the Supreme Court which office he filled without distinction until removed for incompetence in 1861.

On 31 December 1856 Samuel Beddome was appointed Police Magistrate. He had been the clerk of the Adelaide Police Court since 1845. He remained in the office until 1890.

For a short period in 1843, the Magistrates Court occupied billiard rooms adjacent to the old Queen’s Theatre in Gilles Arcade. From 1843 to 1850 it shared the Queen’s Theatre proper with the Supreme Court.

In 1850 the Resident Magistrates Act was repealed and replaced by the Local Courts Act. The Local Court and the Court of Insolvency came into existence. Mr Wigley SM was appointed to the Local Court and also appointed Commissioner of Insolvency. At this time a new Post Office building was in the course of erection on the corner of Franklin and King William Street. It was to house the Magistrates Court, a Police Station and Post Office. Its completion was delayed and the Magistrate was without a court. He sat wherever he could, at times in the new Supreme Court building, at times in rooms in the Prince of Wales Hotel (two doors east of the former Police Building in Angas Street, now the site of the federal court building). At this time the Police Court sat in the Native School, Kintore Avenue (later the Destitute Asylum and now the Migration Museum). The Local Court and the Police Court moved into the old Post Office building in August 1851.

After only 15 years, the Post Office building was found to be too small. It was demolished in order for the current General Post Office building to be built.

Plans were then put in train to build a permanent home for the Magistrates Court on the corner of King William and Gouger Streets (the current site of the Supreme Court). For a period the court sat at a variety of locations including the Town Hall building and a new Government building which had been erected on the corner of King William Street and Flinders Street (now in an extended form, the old Treasury building).

The first purpose built Adelaide Police Court was the bluestone building on King William Street, adjoining the Supreme Court building (now Supreme Courtroom No. 11). It was first occupied by the Police Court on 14 November 1867. Originally it consisted only of the courtroom and some chambers at the back. Within a year the wings on the north and south of the courtroom were built and they housed the offices of the Commissioner of Police and a residence for the Inspector of Metropolitan Police.

The Local Court and Court of Insolvency (the present Supreme Court building) was completed in February 1869 at a cost of £18,000. The Local Court occupied that building only until 1873 when it exchanged locations with the Supreme Court. The Local Court occupied this heritage building until 1891 in which year it exchanged locations with the Police Court. The Adelaide Magistrates Court (Criminal) and its predecessor, the Police Court, has occupied this building continuously since 1891 except for the period from November 1991 to 10 October 1997 when it occupied temporary premises in the old Tram Barn opposite. In 1921 the building was extended to the south (this wing now being demolished to enable the erection of the new building). In 1933/34 the Art Deco building, which adjoins the new building to the south, was erected. That building, refurbished, is now occupied by the Coroners Court. Until the 1960’s the offices of the Commissioner of Police were located in that building.

The Magistrates Court (Civil), formerly the Local Court, has not had a permanent, purpose built building since it left the bluestone building on King William Street. In 1961 it occupied the old Industrial Court building on King William Street (since demolished). It had its administrative headquarters in the Old Supreme Court Hotel (now Jeffcott Chambers). In 1983 it, with the newly created District Court, moved into the Sir Samuel Way building. With the growth of the District Court, the Magistrates Court (Civil) then moved to the Education building in Flinders Street. It is now in the new Adelaide Magistrates Court building where, for the first time for 130 years when Mr Wigley SM shared premises with Mr Beddome SM, it shares a building and facilities with the Criminal Division.

by Mr J.M.A. Cramond (former Chief Magistrate)

Past view of the Adelaide Magistrates Court Building