Located on Melbourne's Little Bourke Street, the former High Court represents the highest level of Australia's legal administration. It operated as the principal registry of the High Court for nearly half a century from 1928 to 1976. From 1977 to 1999, the Federal Court System, which was established by the High Court, also operated from the building.
Creating a nation
Federal law was established in Australia in 1901 by an act of the British Parliament, the Constitution of Australia Act 1900 ('the Constitution'), which laid out the structure of governance for the new nation. Amongst other things, it provided for a Federal supreme court that was to be called the 'High Court', and which had two major functions: to hear and determine appeals from the highest state courts, and to interpret the Constitution.
A Federal supreme 'high' court
The High Court administered criminal law and justice that resolved disputes involving individuals, corporations and governments. Through its general jurisdiction to hear appeals from the states and territories, it contributed to national unity.
The Court's interpretations of the Constitution over time have shifted the legislative power in favour of the Commonwealth and fundamentally altered Commonwealth-state relations, and therefore had a profound influence on Australia's political landscape. It has shaped the legal and political framework that operates in Australia today.
Historic cases heard in the (former) high court
The first sitting of the High Court in Melbourne was on 20 February 1928. R G Menzies KC, a future Australian Prime Minister, appeared for the appellant.
Decisions made by the High Court have widened the powers of the Commonwealth but, in keeping with the Court's independence, have also placed important limitations on Commonwealth power. Important cases were heard and decided in its courts and judgments written in its chambers.
Court Room One was designed to seat the full bench (the seven justices). Hearings heard there included the 1947 Bank Nationalisation Case, which challenged the then Government's legislation to create a government monopoly over banking. The High Court ruled that the legislation was invalid. Court Room One was also the place where the 1950 judgment was made invalidating Parliament's attempt to invoke its defence powers to declare the Australian Communist Party an unlawful association. Both decisions were a major blow to the governments of the day.
The former High Court building is also associated with some of Australia's most eminent and outstanding jurists. Sir Isaac Isaacs was appointed as a High Court judge in 1906 and remained on the bench for almost 25 years. Appointed as Chief Justice in 1930, he held office for less than a year before he was sworn in as the first Australian-born Governor General in January 1931. Sir Owen Dixon, Justice of the High Court and Former Justice from 1952 to 1964, has been described as the greatest legal advocate of his time and the 'Bradman of the judiciary'. Sir Owen had a profound influence on the legal and constitutional principles of Australia.
Designing a high court
The building was designed by the first Chief Commonwealth Architect, John Smith Murdoch. It is built in the Stripped Classical style, which he also used for the design of the National Heritage-listed Old Parliament House in Canberra. The building demonstrates a distinctive design - the strongly modelled exterior with the public entry is separated from the Justice's chambers by three internal courts. The chambers have access to the Central Library thereby promoting interaction between judicial colleagues. The restrained interior detailing reflects the simplicity of the exterior, and is typical of the period and style. The original design style and the integrity of the internal detailing and fit-out of the courts and library is overlaid with contrasting Art Deco motifs. Later additions retain access to natural light for the three courtrooms. The building is revered for its simplicity and dignity.
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