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‘A constant guardian in changing times’: NSW Supreme Court celebrates bicentenary

The Supreme Court of NSW has celebrated its bicentenary after being established 200 years ago with only six solicitors admitted to practice.

user iconLauren Croft 20 May 2024 The Bar
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To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Andrew Bell spoke at the court’s ceremonial sitting on Friday (17 May) and reflected on the evolution of the legal landscape in NSW, which is “vastly different” to what it was previously.

“The court has gained both strength and an augmented respect through the increased diversity in its composition, and we now have a significant cohort of female judges, led by my valued colleague, the president of the Court of Appeal,” he said.

“Although the court has adapted with the times and in the work it undertakes, as well as in the mode of that work (most notably but not only in commercial dispute resolution), it has retained a feisty independence of spirit.”

 
 

Institutions like the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice continued, are the “bedrock on which any civilised society rests, and it is vital that their history, work and purpose is understood and appreciated”.

“Within legal institutions, such as this court, embedded wisdom is reinforced by the doctrine of precedent, which ensures certainty and predictability of outcome to disputes which are the inevitable byproduct of human nature and physical and commercial interaction, in all of its changing manifestations,” he said.

“The judges are the faithful custodians of that embedded wisdom, and bear great responsibility for its maintenance and enhancement, even as society rapidly evolves.”

Chief Justice Bell added that as society evolves, the court has seen a number of notable cases, as well as the increased adoption of tech within the profession.

“The court has itself been a witness to, and in part an agent for, great societal change over the decades, such as in respect of women’s rights to property, custody and status, and the huge changes wrought by the arrival of electrically powered machinery and motor vehicles, with the concomitant rise in personal injuries and industrial accidents. Most recently, its docket has seen it dealing with thousands of cases of historic institutional sexual abuse as well as class actions designed to facilitate access to justice,” he said.

“The court has also been the venue for a host of causes which have captured the attention of the colony and then the nation. Nowadays, the advance of technology has again allowed certain cases, including in this court, to be broadcast at large to an apparently interested public.

“What animates and has animated the living institution that is the Supreme Court of New South Wales over the past 200 years are the people who participate in its daily life, a matter to be kept uppermost in our consideration as we confront the challenges and potency of artificial intelligence.”

These people, Bell CJ mused, include the lawyers, barristers and solicitors, the jurors and judicial staff, as well as participants in various claims and cases.

“Perhaps most importantly, the people of the court include the witnesses and litigants whose cases are, for them, of the greatest personal significance affecting their liberty, livelihood, status, family, property and or financial wellbeing.

“The quotidian resolution of such disputes, whether they attract publicity or not, are the core work of the court and of its judges, who strive to ensure that justice is both done and is seen to be done, that due process is accorded to those charged with criminal offences, that property rights are respected and contracts enforced,” he said.

“All the people who have populated this institution over its first two centuries, from judges to practitioners to litigants, have brought and continue to bring their essential humanity to the work of the court. And their talents and interests have often extended well beyond the immediate practice of the law.”

Lastly, Chief Justice Bell thanked his colleagues and said that “no court or community which it serves could have a finer cohort of judges as we have here in New South Wales in 2024”.

“It is vital that the work and the role of the independent courts and judges is and continues to be understood and valued in our community and by our governments. Fostering that understanding and respect through institutional education and public outreach has been an essential focus of the Supreme Court’s celebration of its bicentenary,” he said.

“Over its long history, and sitting throughout the state, the Supreme Court has, I believe, earned the great respect of the community it serves and has won a reputation that extends well beyond its borders. That is a tribute to the unstinting dedication, skill and public service of the current and previous judges of the court.

“This court has been a constant guardian in changing times. Long may it continue to be.”