A brief historical account of the Supreme Court of Victoria
The geographical area now called Victoria, but previously called the Port Phillip District, was part of New South Wales from the establishment of that colony until Separation in 1851. The new colony of Victoria received a Constitution of its own and fresh judicial institutions were created. Among them, and the only superior court, was the Supreme Court of Victoria - established by Victorian legislation in January 1852 and celebrated its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary in 2002.
The new Court replaced the Court of the Resident Judge at Port Phillip of the Supreme Court of New South Wales; and the last Resident Judge, William a'Beckett, became its first Chief Justice. He and the other Judge appointed to the Court, Redmond Barry, together took their seats on the Bench for the first time on Tuesday, 10 February 1852. This was in a stone courthouse which had been erected in 1842-43, on the North-West corner of La Trobe and Russell Streets, Melbourne.
The business of the Court rapidly increased, following the increase in Victoria's population which arose from the gold rushes of the 1850s, and a third Judge was appointed in July 1852. In 1853, two wooden courtrooms were erected beside the original building but the arrangements soon proved inadequate and unsatisfactory. In any case, the site was generally considered to be too far away from the commercial centre of Melbourne and from public transport. However, it was not until 1884 that the present building, designed to accommodate the Supreme Court, the County Court, the Courts of General Sessions and the Court of Insolvency, became ready for occupation.
By that time the number of Judges had grown to five and a sixth was appointed in 1886; but there was a decline in litigation in Victoria during the 1890s that continued until about 1920. From 1906 there were only five Judges; and from 1917 there were only four, until the number was restored to six in July 1919. It was not until 1945 that a seventh Judge was appointed and an eighth followed in 1947.
After the Second World War, the business of the Court increased rapidly and the need for additional Judges was recognised by the Government. Lack of courtrooms, it was said, prevented appointments being made; but after a while some courtrooms were made available in commercial premises nearby, until extensions to the 1884 building were completed. Five additional Judges were appointed in the 1950's and the number has increased considerably since then.
By July 2002, there were thirty-two Judges, including the Chief Justice and the President of the Court of Appeal. There were nine Judges of Appeal and twenty-one Judges in the Trial Division.
The Court of Appeal was created by Act of Parliament in 1995 and usually sits as separate Benches, each of three Judges. It principally hears appeals from decisions of single Judges of the Supreme Court or of the County Court and replaces for most purposes the Full Court, consisting of three Judges, which previously heard cases of that kind.
The Judges of the Trial Division of the Court have, since 1 January 2000, been further divided into the Criminal Division, the Common Law Division, and the Commercial and Equity Division. Criminal cases are heard by Judge and jury: civil cases, which predominate, mostly by Judge alone.
The Supreme Court has, from the first, enjoyed a very wide jurisdiction. The establishing Act of 1852 defined its jurisdiction at common law by reference to that of the three common law courts at Westminster; its criminal jurisdiction by reference to that of the Court of Queen's Bench at Westminster and the Central Criminal Court in London; its equitable jurisdiction by reference to that of the Lord High Chancellor of England; and its ecclesiastical jurisdiction, in part, by reference to the law of the province of Canterbury. The one Supreme Court of Victoria was to have jurisdiction, within Victoria, equivalent to all those various English jurisdictions.
Nevertheless, the Court from its inception administered the jurisdictions separately, as though they were administered in separate courts - which of course they were in England until the Judicature Acts of 1873-75. This practice came to an end on the coming into force of the Victorian Judicature Act 1883. Nowadays, the jurisdiction of the Court is expressed, in the Constitution Act 1975, to be unlimited.
There have, however, been many changes in the kind of judicial work coming before the Court. Many of them derive from Commonwealth legislation: the old State legislation relating to bankruptcy, divorce and marriage has been supplanted; Federal jurisdiction in income tax appeals and in divorce, which generated considerable business for the Supreme Court at one time, is now dealt with in Federal Courts; but on the other hand a large number of the cases dealt with by the Court nowadays involve the law relating to Corporations or Trade Practices, which is largely governed by Commonwealth legislation.
Many other changes derive from State legislation. The criminal jurisdiction of the old Courts of General Sessions was vested in the County Court in 1968 and has now been enlarged to include all crimes, with the exception of murder, attempts at murder and a very few others which are in the exclusive jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. The civil jurisdiction of the County Court now extends to personal injury cases without limitation as to amount and to other cases where not more than $200,000 is involved. Those changes, and the introduction of compensation without fault for injuries occurring in transport accidents, means that 'running down cases' no longer dominate the jury list in the Supreme Court. Newly developed areas include planning law, administrative law and the law governing property disputes between de facto partners.
Acknowledgement is made to the La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria for granting permission to the Supreme Court of Victoria to use the above photo from the State Library's collection.
Supreme Court of Victoria - Registry
Level 2, 436 Lonsdale Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
Tel: 03 9603 9300
Fax: 03 9603 9400
Office hours: 9.30am - 4.00pm