The Supreme Court of Tasmania is the oldest Supreme Court in Australia.
The first Supreme Court of New South Wales was established as a temporary measure in 1814 under the Second Charter of Justice which were Letters Patent issued by the then Sovereign, King George IV. The Court normally sat in Sydney but sittings were held in Hobart in 1819 and 1821 when Justice Barron Field visited Van Diemens Land which then formed part of the colony of New South Wales. The current Supreme Court of Tasmania (originally Van Diemens Land) was created by the Third Charter of Justice in 1824. The Royal Charter of Justice was read in the market place in Hobart Town on 7 May 1824 and the oath of office administered to Chief Justice Pedder at Government House by the Governor Colonel William Sorell, prior to the opening of the Supreme Court on 10 May 1824 . The Hobart Town Gazette reported on 14 May 1824 that at the first sitting of the Court it administered the oath of office to Attorney-General Gellibrand and to William Sorell as first Registrar of the Court. It also admitted George Cartwright, Hugh Ross and Frederick Dawes as practitioners.
The Hobart Town Gazette published on 28 May 1824 reported that the first prisoner to be tried before the Supreme Court was William Tibbs, who was charged with “shooting at a black man named John Jackson, on the 17 January last, whereby the unfortunate man lost his life”. Mr Tibbs was convicted of manslaughter.
The Court was kept busy in the early years dealing with criminal matters and in the period between 1826 and 1842 a total of 203 criminals were ordered to be hanged.
The Court was first housed in a building on the corner of Murray and Macquarie Streets. Civil and criminal matters were dealt with in the same court complex. However in 1860 the Holy Trinity Church at the junction of Brisbane and Campbell Streets was converted into a criminal court and a new court was opened in the Public Buildings in Macquarie Street for civil cases. The Court was eventually unified again in 1980 when the final phase of the new purpose designed complex was opened at Salamanca Place.
The Court has not been restricted to sitting in Hobart. It has sat regularly in Launceston since in or about the 1850s. The Court has occupied its present site in Cameron Street in Launceston since 1929, although the Launceston District Registry was not opened until 1940.
Sittings of the Supreme Court also began on the north west coast in the nineteenth century. They are now restricted to the Burnie Court House in Alexander Street.
Early Court Houses
The Court was first housed in a building on the corner of Murray and Macquarie Streets. Civil and criminal matters were dealt with in the same court complex.
However in 1860 the Penitentiary Chapel at the corner of Brisbane and Campbell Streets was converted into a criminal court and a new court was opened in the Public Buildings in Macquarie Street for civil cases.
The Court was eventually unified again in 1980 when the final phase of the new purpose designed complex was opened at Salamanca Place.
Court in the Round
The Supreme Court complex at Salamanca Place was constructed in the late 1970s to bring the operations of the Supreme Court into one complex. Prior to this the Criminal Courts were located in Campbell Street and the Civil Courts in Macquarie Street.
The complex was designed by Peter Partridge and consists of two separate buildings – one housing the criminal courts and the other the civil courts and courts administration. The buildings are clad with sandstone quarried at New Norfolk and are linked by a slate paved area which flows from the adjoining St David’s Park.
The broad architectural concept for the complex was to create courts that would be human in scale whilst also providing the quiet dignity which the administration of justice requires. From this concept came the execution of the “court in the round”. The four major courts are circular providing a large court area whilst still retaining a human scale.
The complex provided a showcase for local craftsmen and materials. Wherever possible local traditional materials such as sandstone, slate, and timber were used. Local timber has been used extensively with Tasmanian oak ceilings in the foyers, blackwood and myrtle joinery and panelling in the courts; and huon and celery top pine used to create ceilings and light fittings in the courts.
Origins of the Supreme Court of Tasmania
Charter of Justice
The judicial system of Tasmania may be said to derive from the Imperial Act, 9 Geo IV, c83, and the Charter of Justice, granted pursuant thereto, although such were not the earliest provisions for courts of judicature in the Colony.
An earlier Imperial Act, 4 Geo IV, c96, since repealed, had empowered His Majesty, as a temporary measure, to institute a court of judicature in Van Diemen’s Land to be styled the Supreme Court of Van Diemen’s Land. And by Royal Letters Patent of 13 October 1823 His Majesty had instituted a Supreme Court which commenced its activities on 10 May 1824.
The Imperial Warrant of 18 August 1823 for the institution of the Supreme Court of Van Diemen’s Land may be found reprinted in “Historical Records of Australia”, Series III, Vol IV, pp 478-490. The Royal Letters patent of 13 October 1823 prepared under that Warrant and which constituted the first Charter of Justice for Tasmania are preserved in the Archives Office of Tasmania. A copy of the Charter was presented to the Supreme Court by the Law Society on the occasion of the Court’s 150th anniversary. The framed copy hangs on the wall of the foyer area of the Civil Court building in Hobart.
See Timeline – Charters of Justice – Van Diemen’s Land for significant dates relating to the Charters of Justice.
Separation and independence of Van Diemen’s Land
The Imperial Act, 4 Geo IV, c96 had also, by s44, empowered His Majesty to constitute and erect the Island of Van Diemen’s Land into a separate Colony independent of New South Wales.
By an Imperial Order-in-Council of 14 June 1825, the separation and independence of Van Diemen’s Land was declared. And on 3 December 1825, Governor Darling, the Governor-in-Chief, calling at Hobart Town, on his way to take up his appointment in Sydney, had proclaimed the separate existence of Van Diemen’s Land as a Colony independent of New South Wales.
Roll of Australian Lawyers (Tasmania)
The Supreme Court maintains a register (called the “Roll of Practitioners”) containing details of all Australian lawyers who have been admitted to practice in Tasmania. It includes all solicitors, barristers, Queen’s Counsel and Senior Counsel.
Download: Roll of Legal Practitioners (from 1831 to date)
1824 – 1831
For information about legal practitioners admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of Van Diemen’s Land for the years 1824-1831 see Early Practitioners of Van Diemen’s Land (last amended 25 November 2013). Many of these practitioners were admitted for a second time on 26 September 1831.