1840s : Resident Judges of the PortPhillipDistrict of New South Wales

Judge John Walpole Willis arrived in the Port Phillip district as the resident judge in March 1841. Although the Court heard all the significant criminal trials, including those for capital punishment, Willis and his successors, Judges William Jeffcott and Roger Therry, heard many commercial matters; including a great number of cases of insolvency, contract law and probate matters.

1850s : Establishment of the Supreme Court of Victoria

One of Victoria’s earliest legislative acts as a colony was to establish the Supreme Court. The last resident judge, William a’Beckett became its first Chief Justice. He and the other judge appointed to the Court, Redmond Barry, took their seats on the Bench for the first time on Tuesday 10 February 1852.  

With the discovery of gold in late 1851, the population of the colony tripled in the space of the year and the business of the Court rapidly increased. A third Judge (Edward Eyre Williams) was appointed in July 1852 and another Judge, Robert Molesworth in 1854. Molesworth was also the head of the newly constituted Court of Mines, which made determinations about mining rights.

Sir William Foster Stawell replaced Sir William a’Beckett as Chief Justice in 1857.

Supreme Court Russel Street

Old Supreme Court building corner of Russell and La Trobe Streets. From the State Library of Victoria collection.

1860s : The Supreme Court and New Jurisdictions

By the late 1850s the Court was hearing significant cases relating to the development of the railways in the Colony. The need to regulate and raise capital for large developments such as infrastructure and mining led to the first Company Law Acts.

The Court was also asked to administer and adjudicate on new social welfare laws. Divorce or the Matrimonial Causes Act was introduced in 1863. In 1867, the Master of Lunacy was appointed, a judicial officer of the Court to oversee the property and legal affairs of men and women that had been incarcerated in asylums. The Court continues to play a part in caring for some of the most vulnerable members of society through the administration of Funds in Court. 

1884 : The New Law Courts

Work began on the Law Courts building at the corner of William and Lonsdale Streets in 1874. The building was finished in 1884 and was occupied by the Supreme and County Courts. By this time, the number of judges had increased to five with a sixth judge appointed in 1886.

The Challenges of the 20th Century from Federation to Communism

The economic depression of the 1890s lead to a stagnation of Court business at the turn of the century, then came the First World War leading to further slumps in Court work. The reduction in business eventually lead to a reduction in the number of judges to four in 1917 and was not restored to six until 1919.

With Federation in 1901, Melbourne became the administrative capital of Australia. Accordingly, in 1903 Banco Court was the venue for the first sitting of the High Court of Australia. The High Court continued to hear cases in the Victorian Supreme Court until its own premises were built in Little Bourke Street in 1926.

Following the appointment of Lt. General Edmund Herring as Chief Justice in 1944, two further judicial appointments were made in 1945 and 1947, bringing the number of judges up to eight. Herring also quickly sought commitments for building works to expand the number of court rooms. A further seven judges were appointed during the 1950s.

It was during this time that Justice Lowe conducted an inquiry into the Communist party (1949) and Chief Justice Herring spoke out against communism.

Aerial view of court

The Supreme Court from the air in the early 1920s. State Library of Victoria collection

The Challenges of the 20th Century  : Social Change

Chief Justice Herring did not retire until 1964 when Henry Winneke was appointed. It was only after Herring’s retirement that Joan Rosanove became a Queen’s Counsel. Although women still made up a very small percentage of the overall legal profession and at this time Rosanove was one of the few female Queen’s Counsel in Australia. It is also worth remembering that it was not until the mid 1960s that female jurors were finally empanelled as a part of jury in the state of Victoria

The 1960s was a period of a great social change. The last case where capital punishment was carried out was Ronald Ryan, who was executed in 1967. In 1969, Justice Menhennit made a ruling in R v Davidson that permitted legal abortions in the state of Victoria.

In addition to the increasing number of judges, the role of the Masters (now Associate Justices) had expanded and their numbers had increased over the 20th Century. A Taxing Master was appointed in 1905 and the Listing Master in 1976. The Taxing Master’s role was subsumed into the Costs Court in 2010.

The first female Judicial Officer of the Supreme Court was Kathryn Kings, as a Master of the Supreme Court in 1993. In 1996, Rosemary Balmford was appointed as the first female judge of the Supreme Court.

The early 1990s saw the Court consumed with commercial matters following the corporate collapses of the late 1980s.

The Creation of the Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal was created in 1994 and occupies the old CrownLawBuilding at 450 Lonsdale Street.  Currently there are 12 Judges of the Court of Appeal, and its inaugural president was John Winneke. The Court handles appeal cases primarily from the Supreme Court and County Courts, but other jurisdictions as well.

The 21st Century

In 2003, one year after the Supreme Court marked its 150th Anniversary, Marilyn Warren was appointed the Chief Justice, the first woman to hold this position in any court in Australia.

The first decade of the 21st century saw extensive renovation work on the building’s interior including the creation of the technology driven Court 15, as well as extensive refurbishment of Courts 1 and 4. The Court had now expanded its activities into the Old High Court building, which had been vacated by the Federal Court in 1999. This still posed a problem with the functions of the Court spread over five buildings and a growing number of judges placing pressure on space. Safety also remains a key issue.

Over the last 20 years, the Court has embraced the new digital information technologies including social media and electronic filing. Litigation following the 2009 bushfires was conducted in a specially designed ‘e-courtroom’ and many of the over 10,000 documents tendered in evidence was undertaken electronically.