History of the ACT Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory was established on 1 January 1934 by the Seat of Government Supreme Court Act 1933 (Cth).  The Court is known as the Court of Appeal when it exercises its appellate jurisdiction.

Supreme Court Jurisdiction

The ACT Supreme Court is a superior court of record with civil, criminal and appellate jurisdiction.

Generally, the original and appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is exercised by a single Judge.

Criminal trials are heard before a Judge and jury, or in some cases by a Judge alone, at the election of the accused.

In civil matters the Court has an unlimited monetary jurisdiction, although claims for less than $250,000 are usually brought in the Magistrates Court.

An appeal lies to the Supreme Court from the Magistrates Court, the Childrens Court, and the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ACAT).

An appeal from the Supreme Court’s Associate Judge or from a single Judge of the Supreme Court is heard by the Court sitting as the Court of Appeal which is constituted by three Judges, at least one of whom is a resident Judge.

Composition of the Court

The Supreme Court comprises a Chief Justice, four other resident judges, and a resident Associate Judge  who has broad jurisdiction in personal injury matters. Additional judges  have also been appointed whose primary judicial role is in other jurisdictions. The ACT also employs Acting Judges  who are appointed for up to 12 months.

There are three main units that support the Supreme Court and answer directly to a Principal Registrar.

  1. The Registry is responsible for maintaining up-to-date records of the Court, processing judgments and orders, listing cases and securing court records.
  2. The Sheriff’s Office is responsible for serving and executing the civil process of the Court, administering the jury system, court security and providing court attendants.
  3. The Russell Fox Library which is the main legal reference resource for the ACT courts.

History of the Court

Significant legislation establishing the Court and its expansion

The ACT Supreme Court was established as a superior court of record by the Seat of Government Supreme Court Act 1933 (Cth). The court was mainly established to relieve the High Court of its original ACT jurisdiction and enable appeals from the ACT Court of Petty Sessions (now the Magistrates Court) to be heard within the jurisdiction of the ACT.

However in 1933, the ACT Supreme Court did not have an appellate jurisdiction. Up until 2002, if you wished to appeal a decision made by the ACT Supreme Court you would need to take your case to a Federal Court.

Also, the initial legislation which established the ACT Supreme Court allowed only one judge.

Justice Lionel Oscar Lukin (1868 – 1944) was the first appointed Judge of the ACT Supreme Court.  He was appointed on 25 January 1934 and remained the sole judge of the Court until November 1943.

He did not sit full time on the Territory Supreme Court as he was also a judge of the Federal Court of Bankruptcy.

Image of Justice Lukin

Justice Lukin
image provided courtesy of the Supreme Court Library Queensland.

In 1958 provision was made for judges of Commonwealth Courts to assist with the caseload and serve as additional judges. An additional judge is a judge of another court created either by the Commonwealth Parliament, or a superior court of record of a State or Territory.

From 1958 to 1967 the Court was constituted mainly by additional judges – Justices Dunphy, Joske, Eggleston, Smithers and Kerr* (Judges of the Commonwealth Industrial Court) and Bridge J. (Judge of the Northern Territory Supreme Court).

*From June to November 1966, John Kerr (later known as Sir John Kerr) was appointed as a full time Judge of the ACT Supreme Court. On 2 November 1966 he resigned from being a full time judge and was appointed an additional judge of the ACT Supreme Court the following day.

In 1971, the Supreme Court Act was further amended to allow for the appointment of a second resident judge and Sir Richard Arthur Blackburn was appointed.

In 1972 a third resident Judge of the Supreme Court was appointed - Francis Xavier Lockington Connor.

On 1 February 1977 the first Chief Judge was appointed, Russell Walter Fox .  The courts library is named after Justice Fox.

In 1982 the name of Chief Judge was changed to Chief Justice, in recognition of the stature of the Court within the Australian judicial system. This resulted in the then Chief Judge, Sir Richard Arthur Blackburn’s  title changing to Chief Justice on 7 May 1982.

In 1989 the Supreme Court Act was amended to create the office of Master of the Supreme Court. In January 1990, Mr Alan Eugene Hogan  was the first Master to be appointed. There were a further three Masters appointed prior to the title being changed to Associate Judge.

The ACT Supreme Court (Transfer) Act 1992 (Cth) commenced on 1 July 1992, on which date the Supreme Court transferred from Commonwealth to Territory administration. This Act was as a result of the passage of the ACT (Self-Government) Act 1988 (Cth) which established "The Australian Capital Territory" as a body politic under the Crown.

Section 48A(1) of the ACT Supreme Court (Transfer) Act 1992 (Cth) gave the Supreme Court:

“… all the original and appellate jurisdiction that is necessary for the

administration of justice in the Territory.”

The first judicial appointment to the Court by the ACT administration was Kenneth John Crispin on 26 September 1997, resulting in the Supreme Court having four resident Judges, including the Chief Justice.

Justice Crispin was not given a concurrent commission as Judge of the Federal Court of Australia. This represented a departure from previous practice whereby the Commonwealth had previously (before self-government) appointed ACT Supreme Court Judges to also be Judges of the Federal Court of Australia since the establishment of that Court in 1976.

Before the establishment of the ACT Court of Appeal in 2002, appeals from a judge of the Supreme Court went to the Federal Court. It was the usual practice for a resident ACT Supreme Court Judge to sit on the Federal Court on an appeal from the Supreme Court.

The Courts Legislation Amendment Act 2015(ACT) was notified on 7 April. Amongst other things, that Act has the effect of changing the title of the office of the “Master” of the ACT Supreme Court to “Associate Judge” of the ACT Supreme Court effective 21 April 2015.

Mr David Mossop  was the Master of the Supreme Court when the Courts Legislation Amendment Act 2015 (ACT) was passed.

A list of former and current Judges, Associate Judge and Masters of the Supreme Court can be found here.

Acton House Courthouse

The first sitting of the Court was held at Acton House Courthouse  on 12 February 1934. The first two matters heard involved actions for the restitution of conjugal rights (that is, a request that a husband/wife return to the matrimonial home). Lukin J. made the "usual order" that the wife return to her husband within 21 days. The first eleven cases heard all dealt with matrimonial disputes.

On 29 August 1934, the first recorded appeal to the Supreme Court from the Court of Petty Sessions was heard, by Lukin J.  It involved allegations of illegal gambling activities. The accused, Mr Mitchell, was represented by a junior barrister, Mr Clive Evatt, (who became a prominent Labor politician) and the Crown was represented by Sir Robert Garran (the first Solicitor General of Australia). The police evidence suggested that there was certainly something guilty going on because as the police entered the doorway to the house, the patrons of the establishment exited via a window.  Mr Mitchell’s appeal was dismissed and he had to pay a five shilling fine and costs. Costs were five times the amount that he was fined.

The Acton House Courthouse proved to be unsatisfactory accommodation for the Supreme Court and in early 1935 it was moved to Hotel Acton . The Acton Courthouse was demolished in 1940 when the Court of Petty Sessions also moved to Hotel Acton.

Arrangements were made subsequently (from January 1941) for the Supreme Court to be moved to the new Patents Office  in the suburb of Parkes (which now forms part of the current Commonwealth Attorney-General’s building (Robert Garran Offices).

Supreme Court Moves to the Law Courts Building

In 1963, The Supreme Court moved to its current location in Knowles Place on the Western side of City Hill.  The then new courthouse was opened by Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies and the first sittings of the Court in its new premises took place on 9 May 1963.

Front of the ACT Supreme Court building

The previous ACT Supreme Court, Law Courts Building, Knowles Place, Canberra

It was built for the National Capital Development Commission by Clements Langford (Canberra) Pty. Ltd. Consultant Architects for the project were Messrs Yuncken and Freeman. The building’s exterior walls were of polished grey Wombeyan marble (which is also used on the War Memorial, Canberra and in Sydney for the Reserve Bank).

As self-governance had not occurred in the ACT, replicas of the Australian coat-of-arms were above the main entrances.

A notable feature of the building was the glass-sided open atrium extending the height of the two-storey building.

A significant feature of the courtrooms on the ground floor was the use of timbers donated by, and representative of, the six States of the Commonwealth. Each State provided timber for the panelling and furniture of one of the six courts as follows:

New South Wales – Red Cedar;

Victoria – Mountain Ash;

Western Australia – Jarrah;

Queensland – Silky Oak;

South Australia – Red Gum; and

Tasmania – Blackwood.

New Supreme Courts Building

In 2015 the Territory and Juris Partnership entered into the Territory’s first Public Private Partnership contract for the delivery of new court facilities.

Juris is a consortium of companies and includes Laing O’Rourke, Australia Construction Pty Ltd, Macquarie Capital Group Limited, Programmed Facility Management Pty Ltd and Lyons architects.

The design includes a new structure linking the existing Supreme Court building with the Magistrates Court building, providing a combined facility which continues to respect the jurisdictional separation between the Supreme and Magistrates Courts.

As part of the upgrade, the existing Supreme Court building was totally refurbished in 2018/19.

Key heritage features of the building have been preserved or re-interpreted, including the marble facade, raised podium and internal glazed oval atrium.

Timber used in the six courtrooms (gifted from the six states of the Commonwealth) was salvaged and is used in furniture located in the public areas of the new building.

An interpretation board, setting out the history of the existing building will be installed as part of the second stage of works, during late 2019.  Two courtrooms will be located on their existing footprint (albeit thoroughly modernised and refurbished) in the heritage building to join the six new courtrooms constructed in the new facility.