Sketch of the Supreme Court building frontageThe province of South Australia, unlike the other Australian colonies, was planned according to the theory of colonization of Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Part of that planning entailed the setting up of a Supreme Court. In all the other colonies a Supreme Court was established later, in some cases many years later, than the founding of the colony.

So a judge was appointed to be Judge of the Supreme Court before the first party of immigrants set out on their long voyage to Kangaroo Island and thence to Holdfast Bay. He was Sir John Jeffcott who had previously been Chief Justice of Sierra Leone.

Unfortunately Jeffcott was impecunious and to save himself being arrested and imprisoned for debt as the law then allowed, he had to leave England stealthily and by a vessel bound for Van Diemen’s Land. He arrived at Hobart in January 1837 and stayed there for some months with the family of his fiancée. Ultimately he came to Adelaide in late April 1837 and the first sittings of the court – a criminal session – was held on May 13, 1837. The foreman of the jury was Colonel Light.

The court was set up by ordinance of 7 Will.IV c.5 on January 2, 1837 – five days after the founding of the colony, and was endowed with all the common law, equitable and probate jurisdiction of the courts at Westminster. This may seem a somewhat grandiose establishment for a colony of 546 people, but that was how the plan set it forth.

In July, Jeffcott went back to Hobart to consult with his brother judges there on some difficult questions of jurisdiction which had arisen and, of course, also to see his fiancée. He returned to Adelaide in October and sat sporadically until he was drowned at the mouth of the River Murray on December 12, due to the capsize of a boat in which he was a passenger.

His death was a loss to the infant colony which had split into two warring factions, because he was the only person who had the confidence of both factions.

An acting judge was appointed by the name of Henry Jickling – a quiet learned man who had no hope of quelling the factional squabbles. He did however do two things for the court: he settled its testamentary causes jurisdiction in a form some of which has endured until our own time, and he admitted the first practitioners of the court on 6th March 1838. They were Samuel Smart, George Milner Stephen and Henry Rodolph Wigley.

The jurisdiction in testamentary causes formed a large part of the court’s business in its early years. The then new simplified form of will which we use today came into existence by statute in England in 1837, with that statute being adopted in South Australia in 1842. Most of those who died on the voyage or after reaching this State died intestate. There was little or no storage space in the infant colony for the furniture and effects of the deceased person and usually no near relative able and competent to take a grant of letters of administration, so it was imperative that Jickling organise this section of the court’s work as speedily as possible, which he did very satisfactorily.

The new judge who took Jeffcott’s place was Charles Cooper, who arrived in Adelaide in March 1839. He was a capable man but a hypochondriac, and on occasion absented himself from the business of the court for months at a time. His complaints about his health caused the Governor, Sir Henry Young, to ask the Colonial Office in 1849 to appoint a second judge. His request was acceded to and Mr Justice Crawford was appointed. He arrived in July 1850 and was a very competent judge whose hard work soon cleared up the lagging court lists. He was the first judge to wear a wig and to require counsel appearing before him to do so. Strangely, after Cooper’s incessant complaints about his health, Crawford died of ill health after only two years in the colony while Cooper lived to be over 90.

Justice Crawford’s successor was Benjamin Boothby. He has the distinction (if it be so) of being the only South Australian judge to be removed from office. He was a man who took offence easily and was rude both to his brother judges and to members of the bar appearing before him. He had strong views on the limited capacity of colonial parliaments which infuriated our early parliamentarians. He was nevertheless correct in his views on some of the issues he raised, which required the passing of two statutes by the Imperial Parliament to put right. However he persisted obdurately in his views after the passing of the statutes and was ultimately removed on 29 July 1867. He appealed to the Privy Council but died before the appeal was heard. That was just as well for the South Australian Parliament, because the members had gone ahead and appointed Mr Justice Wearing in his place, notwithstanding the pendency of the appeal and a somewhat cryptic note in Moore’s Privy Council reports suggests that the appeal might have been upheld had he lived. That would have meant the presence of four judges on the South Australian Bench at a time when there was scarcely sufficient work for three.

The third judge at the time of Boothby’s removal was Mr Justice Gwynne who was appointed in 1859. He had been appointed Clerk of the Court by Jeffcott in 1836, but Jeffcott did not have the power to appoint and Governor Hindmarsh refused to confirm the appointment. So Gwynne went into general practice very successfully in Adelaide until his appointment to the bench. Justice Gwynne presided over the first circuit sittings of the court at Robe and Mount Gambier in February 1862.

Chief Justice Cooper retired in 1861. The Legislative Council voted him a lump sum of £10,000 as a pension which Cooper was prepared to accept. Some members of the House of Assembly thought they were being smart in amending the vote to a pension of £1,000 per annum. As the lower house has the power of the purse, their views prevailed. In fact Cooper lived for nearly 26 years after his retirement, so the cost to the State was very much greater than it need have been.

His successor was Richard Davies Hanson who was one of the applicants for the judgeship in 1836. He first went to New Zealand and then settled in South Australia. He was a very able man who was to have been the first Chancellor of the University of Adelaide but he died in March 1876 just before he was to give his inaugural address as Chancellor.

The first Queen’s Counsel were appointed on March 13, 1865. As usual Justice Boothby objected to their appointment. They were Stow, Wearing and Andrews, all of whom later became judges of the court.

Cabinet decided to hold circuit sittings at Palmerston (now Darwin) so Justice Wearing was sent on the long journey by sea around the eastern coast of Australia through Torres Straits to the Northern Territory to hold the first sittings of the circuit court in 1875. He returned on the Gothenburg which was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef on 25 February 1875, resulting in the drowning of the judge, his associate Mr L.J. Pelham and many other passengers. Pelham had commenced the reporting of the South Australian Law Reports and from the one volume of his work which has come down to us, was an able reporter.

Wearing’s successor was Mr Justice Stow, a very good judge and leader of the bar at the time of his appointment. Unfortunately, he did not enjoy good health and died on 17th September 1878.

Hanson’s successor as Chief Justice was Samuel James Way who was to hold the position for nearly 40 years until his death on 9 January 1916. He was considered a master of the law by his contemporaries, but it must be said that a number of his judgments have not been followed in more recent years. His term of office as Chief Justice is a record in this country. He was one of two judges of the court to refuse appointment to the High Court of Australia (the other was Justice Gordon in 1913). When it was offered in 1906, he was already 70 years of age and was Chief Justice, Lieutenant-Governor, Grand Master, and Chancellor of the University and it was not likely that he would give all that up for a puisne judgeship of the High Court, which in those days travelled by wearisome stages on rail and by boat to all of the Australian States.

On Stow’s death Mr Justice Boucaut was appointed and remained in office until 1905. He had been Premier of the State for three terms and was largely responsible for the setting up of the present system of free, secular and compulsory education.

Justice Gwynne retired in 1881 and Mr Justice Andrews was appointed in his stead. He too was plagued by ill health and died on 26 June 1884. His successor was Mr Justice Bundey, who was a judge until his resignation in 1903. He was a noted yachtsman and wrote a book on yachting.

So for 19 years the same three judges, Way, Boucaut and Bundey, formed the court, the longest period of conjoint service in the history of the court. From 1885 to 1905, South Australia plunged into the longest period of depression the State has known. For some years in the 1890s, there were hardly more than 100 originating processes a year.

Not surprisingly there were suggestions in Parliament that one judge ought to be sacked and that the Supreme Court Library should be transferred for the use of Parliament. However, judges can only be removed for judicial misconduct and Way, Boucaut and Bundey were all men of the utmost judicial probity. Ultimately, Cabinet took no action on either suggestion.

When Justice Bundey retired, his successor was Mr Justice Gordon. There were many murmurings from the bar at his appointment because he has been a politician rather than a practitioner for many years, but his appointment turned out to be a good one. Similar murmurings occurred when Justice Homburg was appointed in 1905 to fill the place of Justice Boucaut. Paris Nesbit KC, in particular, delighted in exposing Homburg’s lack of knowledge of court procedure and the profession has many stories, some no doubt true and others ben trovato, of his successes at the expense of the judge.

The last appointment in Chief Justice Way’s lifetime was Justice Murray in 1912, to succeed Justice Homburg. Murray had had a brilliant career both academically and at the bar. Indeed when he was at the height of his practice as a King’s Counsel in 1909, he took a year off and went back to his college – Trinity College, Cambridge – where he passed with distinction a Master of Laws degree. It was therefore no surprise that on Way’s death, Murray was appointed Chief Justice and he served in that office until 18 February 1942. Like Way before him, Murray was a most effective Chancellor of the University and was for nearly 50 years a member of the Faculty of Law, of which Faculty he was at one time in his youth Acting Professor.

The next Chief Justice was Justice Napier, who became a puisne Judge in 1924 and Chief Justice in 1942. He served exactly 43 years in all on the bench from 28 February 1924 to his retirement in 28 February 1967, a record for judicial tenure in this State. He had a powerful mind and a wide knowledge of the law, and like the Almighty, had no pleasure in fools. Anyone who appeared before him, whether at first instance or in banco, had to be thoroughly armed with research on every possible point or he would be bowled out by the Chief Justice’s probing questions.

He was followed by Dr J.J. Bray, a scholarly man and a fine lawyer – not to mention his talent as a poet and playwright. He had to retire early because of ill health in October 1978 and was succeeded by Mr Justice King, who allied a successful political career to a fine career in the law. I say less of either of them than their merits deserve. They were my colleagues on the Bench for many years and it is more fitting that their careers be analysed later in detail by someone less close to them than I am. It is sufficient to say that both have ably sustained the high office they hold and the lustre given to the office by their predecessors Hanson, Way, Murray and Napier.

What then of the achievement of the court as a whole over 150 years? The court has dispensed even-handed justice without fear or favour over the whole of that period. Its members have worked long hours assiduously not only on the bench, but for the public good in honorary offices too numerous to mention. They have tried, and in my respectful opinion, with success, to set standards acceptable to the whole community in this State. The duty of a judge is encompassed in those words of Micah which were so often on the lips of Napier CJ: “He hath showed thee O man what is good. And what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God”. Being mere mortals they could not hope to carry out in its entirety the divine precept. What can be said is that they tried to the utmost of the powers of their minds and souls to live up to it.

By the Hon. Dr Howard Zelling, AO, CBE (Former Justice of the Supreme Court of South Australia)

Compared with the eastern States, South Australia was fairly late in establishing its District Court. Victoria, for example, had formed its Country Court as early as 1852, while New South Wales and Queensland formed their District Courts in 1858 and 1865 respectively. It was not until a little over a century later that South Australia had its own equivalent.

Though first established in 1969, the District Court was not constituted by a separate Act of Parliament until the enactment of the District Court Act in 1991. Prior to that time, the District Court functioned under provisions of the Local and District Criminal Courts Act 1969. This Act created and introduced into the pre-existing Local Court structure District Criminal Courts presided over by District Court Judges. They were conferred power to hear and determine many of the indictable offences that previously could only be tried by the Supreme Court. At the same time, these judges were empowered to sit as Judges of Local Courts of Full Jurisdiction to hear and determine civil actions for amounts up to $8,000 or $10,000 in actions involving the use of a vehicle. Both the newly formed District Criminal Courts and the Local Courts of Full Jurisdiction came into operation in August 1970 and almost immediately helped to alleviate the workload of the Supreme Court and reduce its ever-increasing build-up of cases.

In 1981, by the Statutes Amendment (Administration of Courts and Tribunals) Act 1981 No. 34, District Criminal Courts and Local Courts of Full Jurisdiction were designated as District Courts. Thus, no longer were there separate Local Courts sitting in their Full Jurisdiction and District Criminal Courts, but just one District Court exercising the same powers. The principal motive behind this was to bring the South Australian court system more into line with the way courts were organised in most of the other Australian States and also to enhance the status of the District Court. Unfortunately, the legislation did not completely achieve this object and the District Court, despite being unified, still did not have a separate Act of Parliament of its own. That was to change in 1991.

More than anything, the District Court Act 1991 represented a complete break with the past for the court was, at last, a separate court in its own right with its own constitution, procedures and rules. The Act substantially enlarged the jurisdiction of the District Court both in criminal and civil matters with the result that it has now become the principal trial court in the State. In its criminal jurisdiction, the District Court now has power to try any criminal charge except murder or treason or attempt or conspiracy to commit either of those offences. Its civil jurisdiction is no longer defined in monetary terms and the Court has the same civil jurisdiction as the Supreme Court at first instance with the exception of matters of probate or admiralty. In addition, under the 1991 Act the District Court has exclusive jurisdiction in criminal injuries compensation claims, and is further empowered to deal with a wide range of appeals against administrative decision and appeals from bodies such as the Guardianship Board and Medical Professional Conduct Tribunal.

Thus, within a span of just three decades, the District Court of South Australia has come of age. From being somewhat hastily grafted onto an already existing legislation and given very limited powers, it is now constituted by its own Act and entrusted with the bulk of trial work.

The Environment, Resources and Development Court of South Australia (ERD Court) commenced operation on 15 January 1994.

Its establishment was one of the recommendations of a Government review in 1990 -1992 of the State’s planning and development system (the Planning Review). The Court was established by the Environment, Resources and Development Court Act 1993.

The court’s predecessor in relation to planning appeals was the Planning Appeal Tribunal and prior to that the Planning Appeal Board. Some other matters now within the jurisdiction of the court had previously been heard by the District Court, or an appeal body comprising a judge of that court.

The Final Report of the Planning Review envisaged the proposed court as a “new, integrated system of dispute resolution”, and “the primary forum for all matters involving the development and management of land”, with its jurisdiction being enlarged to deal with matters affecting the environment.

Initially the court had jurisdiction under the Development Act 1993 and the Heritage Places Act 1993. Other jurisdictions in the “environment” and “resources” categories were added by subsequent legislation.

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)

In 1836 Sir John Jeffcott was appointed the first judge of South Australia. After losing his belongings in a shipwreck en route to South Australia, Sir John purchased £150 worth of books from Van Diemens Land for his personal use.

By 1848, legal practitioners were demanding the establishment of a law library and petitioned the Legislative Council in 1854 stating ‘their urgent want of a library of reference of legal works’. The Colonial Secretary arranged for £300 to be provided for the establishment of a law library.

In 1856 a law library for the judiciary and the legal profession was set up in the office of the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. The Registrar, Mr Cleland, was appointed Law Librarian in addition to his role as Registrar of Births, Death and Marriages.

The library remained in Mr Cleland’s office until 1865 when it was relocated to the Supreme Court in the original part of the building which is now the Adelaide Magistrates Court.

1873 – 1990s

In 1873 the library moved with the Supreme Court to its present location at 1 Gouger Street, initially occupying rooms on the first floor of the western wing.

The library collection was significantly increased by two major bequests: Sir Samuel Way’s bequest of 2,300 books in 1916 and Sir Herbert Angas Parson’s bequest of his private law library to the Supreme Court in 1945.

In 1958 the Library Building was erected and the library moved to its current location on the 2nd floor of the new building in 1959. By 1984 the library collection had grown to 65,000 volumes and increased to 100,000 volumes by the late 1990s.

Sir Samuel Way Library

With the development of the Sir Samuel Way Law Courts Building in 1983, it was decided to incorporate a new library in the building and consolidate the existing libraries for the Adelaide Magistrates Court, the Adelaide Children’s Court, District Court judges, Sturt Street magistrates, Planning Appeal Commissioners and Local Court magistrates into one library, the Sir Samuel Way Library.

It was also decided for all courts to be administered by one department, the Courts Department. In 1993, the Courts Administration Authority was established to provide a means for the judiciary to control the administrative facilities and services required by State courts to carry out their judicial functions.

CAA Library Service

In 2005 the Supreme Court Library and Sir Samuel Way Library were amalgamated to form the Courts Administration Authority Library Service (CAA Library Service).

The Library delivers a comprehensive range of information services and manages access to an extensive collection of legal research resources in print and digital format.

The Library maintains library collections for the Supreme Court, District Court, Magistrates Courts, Youth Court and Environment, Resources and Development Court.

The Supreme Court Library is also a public access library and provides access to legal resources for legal practitioners and public users.