The High Court of Australia is established

August 25, 2018

On 25 August 1903, the Australian Parliament passed the Judiciary Act 1903 establishing the High Court of Australia – another important founding institution of the (then) recently federated Commonwealth of Australia.

Whilst Federation commenced on 1 January 1901, and the new Australian Parliament first sat on 9 May 1901 (after our first Federal election on 29 March that year), it took a further two years to properly develop and finalise the legislation to set up the Court (for more details, read further below).

In general, the High Court’s role is to interpret and apply the laws of Australia, setting precedents for all jurisdictions in the process. This includes:

  • upholding the Constitution by determining whether laws enacted by our parliaments are constitutional
  • deciding cases of federal significance
  • hearing appeals from federal, state, and territory courts, and
  • being our court of final appeal (whereas, up to 1975, High Court decisions could be appealed to the UK’s Privy Council).

The High Court has been at the centre of some of the significant constitutional matters in Australia's history, particularly:

  • its interpretation of Australia's legal obligations under treaty law in the Tasmanian Dams case,
  • interpretations of Native Title rights in the Mabo and Wik cases, and resultant legislative changes,
  • in recent times, the interpretation of section 44 of the Constitution on the eligibility of members and senators due, for instance, to dual-citizenship or 'pecuniary interests'.

Mark this day that Australia’s High Court was established by:

  • if you are in/near Canberra, visiting our High Court and maybe taking a guided tour
  • reading further about this founding institution of Federation, including various facts and records,
  • for a lighter-hearted reflection, remember this 'famous' appearance - in The Castle - of suburban solicitor Denis Denuto in the Federal Court - later assisted by a barrister Mr Hamill played by the late, great Bud Tingwell in the High Court ,
  • reflecting on the significant difference between
    • our High Court (which, largely, applies the Constitution and does not 'make law') and
    • the politicised appointment process and law-making role under a Bill of Rights of the United States Supreme Court (e.g. the redefinition of marriage by the US Supreme Court, not parliaments, in Obergefell v. Hodges)
  • watching footage of the sitting of a previous High Court case of interest (for those really keen), and/or
  • sharing this Action Plan post on social media with family, friends, defenders of the rule of law, advocates for merit and justice morality and those that respect our founding institutions.

Further details of our High Court

The High Court began with three justices, who were appointed on 5 October 1903 and first presided the next day. They were:

  • Chief Justice Sir Samuel Griffith (former Premier and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Colony of Queensland)
  • Justice Edmund Barton, former (and first) Prime Minister of Australia, and
  • Justice Richard Edward O’Connor, former Minister of Justice and Solicitor-General of New South Wales and former Australian Senator.

Due to workload, necessity and early effectiveness, the Australian Parliament voted to add two more justices to the High Court in 1906, with a further two added in 1913.

The High Court (its primary registry) was located in Melbourne from its inception until 1973. It was then transferred to Sydney for seven years until permanently moved to its new building (and current home) in Canberra in 1980, on the Parliamentary Triangle’s shores of Lake Burley Griffin.

A running sore-point for South Australians is that they have never had a South Australian appointed to the High Court.

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