On 17 May 2024, it will be the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the Supreme Court of NSW. There will undoubtedly be various formalities and events to mark the occasion.

Some history

The backstory to the establishment of the Court is interesting (and takes us back to that “Legal Foundations” course that we have all forgotten about). In 1819 John Bigge (an English Judge and Royal Commissioner) was sent to prepare a report on the state of the colony. Up until that time, the Governor had virtually unlimited powers. There was growing concern about the lack of a superior court and the lack of a responsible government in the growing colony. After considering the “Bigge Report” the Parliament of Westminster passed the New South Wales Act 1823 (4 Geo. 4. c. 96). That Act established the Legislative Council in NSW as well as the Supreme Court.

Sir Francis Forbes (formerly the Chief Justice of Newfoundland) was appointed as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of NSW on 17 May 1824. 

Opening of law term address

The rest of this blogpost has been inspired by the current Chief Justice’s (Andrew Bell) opening of law term address (which you can read in its entirety on the Supreme Court website).

A few things from that speech that made me stop and think:

  • In 1824, Napoleon Bonaparte had only been dead for 3 years and the architects of modern liberalism and communism, John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, were still boys, as were Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens. Beethoven’s ninth symphony was performed in Vienna for the first time only 10 days prior to the proclamation of the Third Charter of Justice in New South Wales;
  • it is salutary to recall (or indeed discover) that, later that same year (1824), Governor Brisbane declared martial law against the Wiradjuri people of what we now know as Bathurst and its surrounds; 
  • it was not until the Women’s Legal Status Act of 1918 that females were legally permitted to practice law, let alone take up judicial office; and
  • Jane Mathews was appointed as the first female justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in 1987. The second female judge of the Court….Carolyn Simpson AO…retire[d] from the Court in March of this year, just shy of its 200th anniversary. That the second-ever female judge appointed to the Court is retiring on the cusp of its 200th anniversary speaks for itself.

Happy anniversary.

Creative commons acknowledgment for the photograph.

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