News: Historic Old High Court building in Melbourne

Melbourne-based readers of the blog may be interested to know that the Victorian Supreme Court will be opening the Melbourne Old High Court building on 30 July from 10am to 4pm as part of the Open House Melbourne Festival. In addition from 2 – 2:30pm, there will be a talk on the architecture and history of the building by Robin Grow, an expert in Art Deco architecture, and Joanne Boyd, the Supreme Court Archives and Records Manager. This post outlines some of the significance of the building, with a quick dip into significant constitutional cases for those who have an interest in such matters. [Update: for a fascinating personal insight into his role in ensuring the Supreme Court made use of the Old High Court and the decision-making process with regard to the crossover between the Supreme Court and the Old High Court see Hon. Philip Mandie’s comment on the post.]

Image taken by Heather Turk

Until the Old High Court building was completed in 1928, the High Court was peripatetic, and did not have its own dedicated building. Instead it used various State court buildings. Then-Chief Justice Sir Adrian Knox reportedly complained that, “Until we get another court of our own it will be impossible to arrange the work to the best advantage.”

The architect of the new building was John Smith Murdoch, the Commonwealth’s Chief architect at the time, who followed the Beaux-Arts style of architecture. As an interesting aside, the Australian Dictionary of Biography reports that Murdoch was a ‘dour Scot’ who had ‘no particular enthusiasm’ for the establishment of Canberra, describing it as ‘a sort of mythical thing’ on which public funds should not be expended.

The Old High Court building held the chambers of six former Chief Justices of the High Court, Sir Adrian Knox (1928 – 1930), Sir Isaac Isaacs (1930 -1931), Sir Frank Gavan Duffy (1931 – 1935), Sir John Latham (1935 -1952), Sir Owen Dixon (1952 – 1964) and Sir Garfield Barwick (1964 – 1980).

Important Constitutional cases in the Old High Court Building

The first sitting of the High Court in Melbourne was on 20 February 1928. RG Menzies KC, future Prime Minister of Australia, appeared for the appellant in Corporation of the City of Adelaide v Australiasian Performing Right Association Ltd (1928) 40 CLR 481.

A number of significant constitutional cases were heard in the Old High Court Building, including:

The end of the High Court in Melbourne

The High Court of Australia remained in the building until June 1980. The final High Court case to be heard in the Old High Court building was Air Express Ltd v Ansett Transport Industries (Operations) Pty Ltd (1981) 146 CLR 249. The case dealt with the question of damages flowing from a failed interlocutory injunction. For non-litigious readers, when a plaintiff seeks an interlocutory injunction, the court requires the plaintiff to undertake to compensate the defendant for any losses flowing from compliance with the injunction if the defendant is ultimately successful at trial. Air Express confirmed that only losses flowing from the interlocutory injunction itself sound in damages for the purposes of such an undertaking.

The Federal Court of Australia also occupied the Old High Court Building until its new premises were completed in 1999, after which the Old High Court building was taken over by the Victorian Supreme Court.

The building was under threat of demolition in 2005. However, in 2007, it was placed on the National Heritage List, in part because of its architecture, but also because of the significance of the constitutional cases heard within it, and the association of several very prominent judges with the building.

The High Court will be returning to Melbourne in September this year while its Canberra premises are refurbished and the air-conditioning is replaced. I suspect that the High Court will sit in the Federal Court complex, but I can’t help wishing in a nostalgic way that perhaps it might have just one sitting in Court No 1 in the Old High Court.

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