History of NSW Courts and Tribunals

1787:  The passing of the New South Wales Courts Act in April 1787 by the British Parliament allows for the establishment of the first 'court of judicature' in the new penal colony. This act allows the governor to set up the court for the 'trial and punishment of all such outrages and misbehaviours' that would be deemed as 'treason or misprision thereof felony or misdemeanour'.

1788: Governor Phillip, who arrives in New South Wales with 850 convicts, guards and officials, has absolute authority over everyone in the colony, including the Aboriginal inhabitants. The military government enforces the law through public punishment, including hangings and floggings.

The first court hearing is held in Sydney Cove on 11 February 1788. A week later the first bench of magistrates is convened with hearings aboard the Sirius.

From the early years, juries are used in coronial enquires to help the coroner determine the cause of death. 

1800 - 1899

1810: New South Wales gets its first paid magistrate, D'Arcy Wentworth. Prior to this, most magistrates were land owners or notables with little legal training who worked on a voluntary basis.

1814: Second Charter of Justice for New South Wales passed by King George III. The old civil court is abolished and replaced with the Governor's Court, which deals with claims up to £50, and the 'supreme Court of Civil Adjudicature', which dealt with claims of more than £50. The Supreme Court is presided over by Judge Jeffery Bent, who is appointed by the British authorities, plus two magistrates appointed by the Governor of New South Wales.

1815: Two court rooms built in the Rum Hospital in Sydney.

1816: Judge Jeffery Bent and his brother Governor Ellis Bent removed from office by the British authorities following the Rum Rebellion.

1819: John Bigge, Chief Justice of Trinidad conducts a Royal Commission of Inquiry into conditions in the colony. Among the Commissioner's recommendations is that the Court of Criminal Jurisdiction and the Supreme Court of Civil Judicature should be abolished and replaced with a new Supreme Court, with civil and criminal jurisdiction. Bigge recommends that a more independent legal system should be established, under the Attorney General.

1821: The first courthouse at Windsor is constructed. This is the oldest remaining courthouse in New South Wales and is still being used today. It was among a number of purpose-built courthouses constructed during the 1820s in the colony.

1823: Supreme Court of New South Wales is established in terms of the Third Charter of Justice for the better administration of Justice in NSW and Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). It has criminal jurisdiction equivalent to that of the King's Bench at Westminster. Sir Francis Forbes is appointed first Chief Justice of NSW, with a higher rank than any other subject except the governor. The New South Wales Act 1823 creates the first Legislative Council and also allows limited trial of civil cases by a jury of 12 male land owners.     

1824: The Office of Sheriff of New South Wales is established by Charter of Justice. For more information see history of Office of Sheriff

1827: The first courthouse for the Supreme Court constructed in Sydney next to St James Church in King Street. The building is so poorly built that in 1832 Chief Justice Francis Forbes says 'no person can attend the court for a single day in the Winter season without serious prejudice to their health'.

1832: The powers of the Courts of Petty Sessions and magistrates are formalised in The Offenders Punishment and Justices Summary Jurisdiction Act. Judges in the Courts of Petty Sessions can convict people on charges of theft, drunkenness, disobedience of orders, neglect or running away from work, abusive language to a master or other disorderly or dishonest conduct.

Courts of Petty Sessions are held in 19 locations including the post office and Hyde Park in Sydney and pubs, police lockups and private homes in towns like Bathurst, Newcastle and Port Macquarie.

1835: Over several years, a new Darlinghurst Courthouse is built for the criminal jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Designed by Colonial Architect Mortimer Lewis in the classical Greek revival style, the building with its massive stone columns becomes a model for court house design in Australia for the next 60 years.

1840: Governor Gipps proclaims three Supreme Court districts "southern, western and northern " each of which are to be visited twice a year.

1856: The colony of New South Wales becomes self-governing. The Attorney-General becomes an elected minister responsible for the administration of Justice, Law Departments and the Judicial Administration.

1858: District Courts are established in terms of the District Courts Act 1858 as part of a broader court reform process. With the increasing number of criminal trials and growing litigation, the Supreme Court and Courts of Quarter Sessions do not have sufficient resources to cope with demand. District Civil Courts are empowered to deal with claims of under £200. A District Court Judge is appointed to preside over the Court of Quarter Sessions.

1881: Stipendiary magistrates are appointed, with exclusive jurisdiction to deal with criminal summary offences in the Sydney district in terms of theMetropolitan Magistrates Act 1881. This follows criticism of the difficulty of getting legally competent lay justices to sit in summary trials in Sydney.

1900 - 1999

1901: After the Commonwealth of Australia is proclaimed, New South Wales gets a single Department of Attorney General and Justice. By 1902, the Department has a staff of more than 1500 people mainly working in the Courts of Petty Sessions.

The Court of Arbitration, the forerunner to the Industrial Relations Commission, is established. The court can hear and determine any industrial dispute or matter referred to it by an industrial union or the Registrar, prescribe a minimum wage and make orders or awards.

1905: Children's Courts are proclaimed at Sydney, Newcastle, Parramatta, Burwood and Broken Hill. In October 1905 the first sitting of a Children's Court is held in Ormond House, Paddington. This follows the passing of the Neglected Children and Juvenile Offenders Act 1905 Act. Six years later the Children's Court premises are moved to Albion Street in Sydney.

1911: A Court Reporting service, with a number of expert shorthand writers, is set up as a branch of the Department of Attorney General and Justice. Before this time presiding judges recorded evidence in longhand.

1923: The Child Welfare Act 1923 replaces previous legislation related to Children's Court and neglected children. Girl detainees moved to the newly opened 'Metropolitan Girl's Shelter' at Glebe.

1926: The Industrial Commission replaces the Court of Arbitration and the Industrial Court (established in 1908). The Commission can make awards fixing rates of pay and working conditions and hours in industries within its jurisdiction.

1939: The minimum age of criminal responsibility for children raised from 7 to 8 years old in terms of the Child Welfare Act 1939.

At Armidale courthouse, John Trevor Kelly is sentenced to death by hanging and becomes the last person in New South Wales to be executed.

1941: The Industrial Arbitration Act 1940 consolidates all previous acts and an attempt is made to refine and rationalise the procedures and operation of the Industrial Commission. The Act provides for the establishment of an Industrial Commission and Industrial Magistrates Courts as well as Conciliation Committees.

1955: For the first time, all newly appointed magistrates are required to have legal qualifications.

1973: A single District Court of New South Wales is established after the District Courts and the Courts of Quarter Sessions are abolished in terms of the District Court Act 1973. The District Court is given state-wide criminal and civil jurisdiction. District Courts are presided over by a judge, with a jury required in criminal cases.

1973: Administrative Decisions Tribunal is formed with powers to review certain government decisions. 

1977: Jury Act of 1977 is passed. The minimum age of criminal responsibility for children is raised from 8 to 10 years old.

1980: The New South Wales Land and Environment Court becomes the first superior specialist environmental court to be established in the world. This follows the passing of the Land and Environment Court Act 1979.The court is able to determine a wide range of environmental, development, building and planning disputes.

1983: Metropolitan Children's Court at Albion Street closed after Bidura Children's Court is opened in Glebe. The court still operates today. However, due to frequent escapes from the Bidura Remand and Assessment Centre, it is now used only to holds juveniles appearing in court that day.

1985: The Local Court is established and the Courts of Petty Sessions abolished after the Local Courts Act 1985 is passed. Local Court is presided over by a magistrate without a jury.

1986: Magistrates become independent judicial officers under the Judicial Officers Act.

1987: The first Senior Children's Magistrate is appointed and the Children's Court Advisory Committee established following the passing of the Children's Court Act 1987.

1989: The Dust Diseases Tribunal of New South Wales is established to deal quickly with claims from people who had become ill after exposure to dust, especially asbestos. The unions had pressured the government to act saying many of their members were dying before their claims could be heard in court. Prior to this dust diseases cases were heard in the Supreme Court and District Court.

1991: The Niland report reviews the state's industrial laws. It results in the passing of the Industrial Relations Act 1991 and an Industrial Relations Commission and a separate Industrial Court are created. They replace the Industrial Commission.

1996: The Industrial Court and Commission are reunited into a single body under one administration in terms of the Industrial Relations Act 1996. When the court deals with judicial matters, it is called the Industrial Court and is a superior court of record equivalent in status to the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

1998: Children's Court Clinic is established to provide independent, clinical assessments of children, young people and their families for the Children's Court. Assessments by experts assist children's magistrates and judges making decisions.  

2000 - present

2000: Youth Drug and Alcohol Court is established to provide a specialised justice service to meet the needs of children and young people affected by an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

2005: In-court sessions of the Industrial Relations Commission of New South Wales are now called the Industrial Court of New South Wales. This change was contained in the Industrial Relations Amendment Act 2005.

2007: The Local Court Act 2007 is passed and becomes effective in mid-2009. The new Act provides for one Local Court of New South Wales which sits at locations directed by the Chief Magistrate. The court hears minor criminal matters and civil claims of less than $60,000 (later increased to $100,000).

2009: The Land and Environment Court becomes the first in the world to implement the International Framework for Court Excellence. 

2011: A new Drug Court opens at Toronto to rehabilitate and give training to offenders.

2012: Closure of Youth Drug and Alcohol Court.

Last updated:

03 Apr 2020

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