The Hobart

Tassie Supreme Court Turns 200

by Justice Stephen Estcourt AM
Tassie Supreme Court Turns 200

On 10 May, the Supreme Court of Tasmania, the third and equal arm of the Tasmanian Government, will celebrate its 200th anniversary.

The Supreme Court of Van Diemen’s Land, as it was then called, first sat on 10 May 1824 making it the oldest Supreme Court in Australia by seven days. John Lewes Pedder arrived in Hobart Town with his wife, Maria, aboard the barque Hibernia on 15 March 1824. A flag, known as signal 42, was raised at Mt Nelson, signifying that an important person was arriving. LieutenantGovernor Sorell thought that person was his replacement, Lieutenant-Governor Arthur, on board the Adrian. That was not the case.

In his possession Pedder had a document, known as Letters Patent authorising the establishment of a Supreme Court in Van Diemen’s Land. It is a sobering perspective that when Chief Justice Pedder took his seat as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court several weeks later, on 10 May 1824:

• Transportation, which was to continue for another 29 years, had swelled the convict population of the settlement from 600 to 6,000 over the previous eight years and would continue to a peak of 28,500 in 1848;

• The first “guests” of His Majesty King George IV would not be housed at Port Arthur in any form for another six years;

• The “Model Prison” there would not be built there for another 25 years;

• Lieutenant-Governor Arthur’s shameful foolishness, the Black Line, as it was coined by contemporary journalist Henry Melville, lay some six years in the future – October 1830;

• Trial by jury as we know it today in criminal cases would not be in place until 1840;

• More convicted criminals were being executed by public hanging than at any other time before or after in Australian history; and

• Representative government for the newly-named Tasmania would not arrive for another 32 years on 1 January 1856.

It took approximately five months for the similar Letters Patent to be delivered to Hobart Town by Chief Justice Pedder on board the Hibernia, and to Sydney Town by Chief Justice Forbes on the Guilford. Both vessels arrived at their destinations in March 1824, but the reading of the Charter at Government House in Tasmania, and in the marketplace in Hobart, as well as the first sitting of the Supreme Court in Murray Street, all occurred some days before the Letters Patent authorising the establishment of the Supreme Court of New South Wales were proclaimed in Sydney on 17 May 1824.

Gallows
The Gallows. Pic: Samuel Shelley

The Court will mark its bicentenary with a ceremonial sitting, a display of memorabilia and regalia, and walking tours between the three sites the Court has occupied.

After the ceremonial sitting there will be the launch of a book written by Justice Stephen Estcourt AM titled From Convicts to Computers – Two Hundred Years of the Tasmanian Supreme Court.

The judges of the Court welcome Hobartians to join in the celebration of its anniversary. More info via www.supremecourt.tas.gov.au.

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