Court History

Court History

The Magistrates' Court of Victoria is established by Section 4 of the Magistrates' Court Act 1989 which states:

 (1)  There shall be a court to be known as the Magistrates' Court of Victoria.
 (2)  The Court shall consist of the magistrates, the judicial registrars of the court and the registrars of the Court.

The birth of the Magistrates' Court dates back to colonial times. In 1836, the residents of the settlement that is now the City of Melbourne, gathered to discuss the issue of lawlessness. A Mr J. Simpson was appointed as arbitrator to hear disputes. It was agreed by those present, that they would abide by the arbitrator's decision without appeal.

Three months later, Captain Lonsdale was appointed Police Magistrate for the territory of Port Phillip by the Governor of New South Wales, who set up office near the present site of Southern Cross Train Station. The first case was heard by Captain Lonsdale in October 1836.

In July 1838, Melbourne was appointed for the sittings of the Court of Petty Sessions. These courts were also held in towns all over Victoria. The Court did not sit regularly until 1839 and by 1880 sat at 235 different locations throughout Victoria.

Police Magistrates - These Magistrates were government officials who had originally been responsible for supervising police in their district. A Police Magistrate moved around and was able to set up whenever and wherever required too. This included locations such as tents or hotels. All Police Magistrates had some sort of formal training, many having been promoted from clerks of courts.

Honorary Magistrates - Justices of the Peace

One Police Magistrate could sit in a court of petty sessions, however usually two or more Justices of the Peace were necessary to constitute a Court of Petty Sessions. The Court of Petty Sessions initially dealt only with criminal matters. The type of offences the court typically heard included, drunkenness and minor assaults. This jurisdiction also conducted committal proceedings. Originally, the civil jurisdiction of the Court of Petty Sessions was limited to 20 pounds. Obviously this amount has increased over the years and as at today, the jurisdictional limit of the Magistrates' Court is at $100,000.00.

In 1884, the Court of Petty Sessions moved into the vacant Supreme Court building on the Corner of Russell and Latrobe Streets. This building was demolished in 1910 and a new building constructed.

The new City Court was officially opened on the 20th January 1914. A photograph taken of that occasion indicates that almost every Justice of the Peace in the city was present and seated on the bench along with the Attorney-General and the Chairman of the Bench of Magistrates. The original building contained three courtrooms. The City Court which dealt with criminal matters, the District Court which dealt with town and District Court business and the Third Court which was used only in emergencies. A feature of the District Court is a wooden canopy over the seat upon which the Magistrate sits. This canopy was taken from old Supreme Court which had originally been located at the site.

In 1948, the title of Police Magistrate was changed to Stipendiary Magistrate and on the 1st April 1970, there was a further change when the name of the Court of Petty Sessions, which was taken from New South Wales, was changed to the Magistrates' Court.

The building on the corner of Russell and Latrobe Streets accommodated the Court from 1914 to 1994. The Melbourne Magistrates' Court relocated to its current address of 233 William Street, in 1995.

If you would like to know more about the history of the court, there are articles about the development of legal institutions in the early years of the Settlement of Port Phillip (as Victoria was then known) and the beginnings of the Magistrates' Court of Victoria, by former Magistrates Patrick Street and William Cuthill, which can be viewed via the Related Publications menu.