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Surprising Facts about the High Court of Australia

Justices of the First High Court of Australia

At law school we spend years studying the decisions of the High Court. Although you’ve written plenty of case notes about the HCA’s judgments, here are some things you probably didn’t know about Australia’s highest court…

The record for most counsel appearing before the High Court in a matter was set in the 2006 Work Choices case when 39 barristers packed courtroom one. Sadly there’s no headcount for the solicitors in that case, but we’re guessing there were a few of those present too.

All three justices on the initial High Court bench – Chief Justice Samuel Griffith and Justices Edmund Barton and Richard O’Connor – were involved in drafting Australia’s Constitution. Despite this, it wasn’t until Cole v Whitfield in 1988 that the court consulted information about the constitutional conventions to guide its constitutional interpretation.

The High Court library, which is reserved for the justices, is spread over three floors and is home to some 140,000 books.

Justice Evatt was the youngest High Court appointee. He joined the court in 1930 at the tender age of 36.

The prize for longest serving High Court judge goes to Justice Edward McTiernan, who spent 46 years on the bench (1930-1976). Justice Albert Piddington spent the shortest time on the bench, resigning the position in April 1913, one month after his appointment and before he’d even had the opportunity to hear a case.

The love-it-or-hate-it design of the High Court building in Canberra is considered a classic example of late modern Brutalist architecture, and the building even made the World Register of Significant 20th Century Architecture.

During the early Constitutional Conventions, Australia’s highest court was to be known as the Supreme Court of Australia. The proposed name was dropped at the 1897 Adelaide convention, and the new name, the High Court of Australia, stuck.

The High Court first sat on 6 October 1903.

Of Australia’s 50 High Court Justices, 26 have come from New South Wales, followed by 13 from Victoria, eight from Queensland and three from Western Australia. South Australia, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory are still waiting for their first High Court judge.

Twenty-four High Court judges studied law at the University of Sydney, 12 at the University of Melbourne, four at the University of Queensland, three at the University of Western Australia, and one at Australian National University. The remaining judges completed their legal qualifications overseas or were admitted to practice through alternative programs.

As a politician, Justice Higgins opposed legislation establishing the High Court of Australia, arguing that there was insufficient work for the court and that continuing to allow appeals to the Privy Council would render the court ineffective. Within a few years, Higgins became the fifth justice to be appointed to the High Court, and ended up serving the court for 22 years.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: This story was first published on Survive Law on 2 December 2012.

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