History of the ACT Magistrates Court
The ACT Court of Petty Sessions was established on 25 November 1930 and renamed the Magistrates Court on 1 February 1986.
Prior to the Court’s opening in November 1930, Territorians were required to travel inter-state to Queanbeyan, Goulburn or Cooma to have their matters heard. Such an arrangement, according to the Solicitor-General and Secretary to the Attorney-General’s Department of the day, Sir Robert Garran, was far from ideal and “full of legal pitfalls”.
Under the Seat of Government Acceptance Act 1909, state or federal courts had jurisdiction to settle legal disputes arising within the Territory. Due to the small number of matters that went before courts in the surrounding districts this situation initially worked well. However, issues arose concerning the length of time and expense it took to travel from Canberra to Queanbeyan (or in the case of serious criminal cases, to Goulburn or Cooma).
In 1926 Sir Robert Garran recommended the building of a permanent courthouse in the ACT or, if construction of permanent facilities were not economically viable, temporary courtrooms. At the time the Federal Capital Commission was not agreeable to either suggestion fearing that a permanent building would “disrupt the geometry and design of the Civic Centre hexagon”.
Moves, however, towards providing Territorians with access to their own administration of justice continued and accelerated. In 1929 Acton House was accepted by Attorney-General Latham as a suitable building from which the Court of Petty Sessions could conduct legal proceedings. The building was refurbished and converted for court use in the same year. From 1929 to 1963 the Court of Petty Sessions moved several times including to the Jolimont Buildings in the city.
At the same time it was determined that the Territory would require its own judicial officers.
The creation of the new court meant that the jurisdiction of the NSW Court of Quarter Sessions would no longer govern the legal affairs of Territorians. However, it would not be until 1949 when the Territory would have its first permanent full-time Stipendiary Magistrate, F.C.P Keane, appointed.
In 1974, Charles Kilduff would become the inaugural Chief Magistrate of the ACT. He continued in the role of Chief Magistrate until 1980.
By the 1980s, as the work load of both the ACT Supreme Court and the Magistrates Court increased, additional facilities and accommodation needed to be found.
On 8 May 1963, the Law Courts Building at Knowles Place was opened by Sir Robert Menzies.
Construction of the Magistrates Court building started in October 1994 and was completed by 1996. At its peak the project would come to employ as many as 200 people. The building has received a number of awards, including a major ACT award for architectural design. The building was designed by local Canberra architects, Graham Humphries, Rodney Moss and Colin Stewart.
In 2015 the Territory and Juris Partnership entered into the Territory’s first Public Private Partnership contract for the delivery of new court facilities.
The new building reflects and supports a progressive and independent judiciary. Apart from providing technology upgrades to existing magistrates courtrooms, and a number of shared spaces in an integrated facility, the building also provides the court with the opportunity to accommodate a number of assessment and support services, including the Domestic Violence Crisis Service, ACT Legal Aid, and ACT Health agencies including Court Alcohol and Drug Assessment Service (CADAS), the Forensic Mental Health Court Liaison Team and Child and Youth Protection Services (CYPS).
The Law Courts of the ACT building which has previously housed the Magistrates Court and most recently, the Supreme Court, will include mediation suites, hearing rooms, court rooms and facilities for assessments and support services.