An Act for the Better Administration of Justice in New South Wales, 1823 (4 Geo. IV c.96) provided for the establishment of Courts of General or Quarter Sessions. The Courts were to have the same powers as the Courts of General or Quarter Session in England. The main role of the Courts was to try criminal matters committed in the colony or on the voyage to New South Wales other than capital offences or those punishable by the death penalty.
A return of sentences imposed by the courts was to be completed and submitted to the Governor, who, in turn forwarded it to British authorities every six months (2)
The Act had failed to specify procedures for the courts and it was unclear whether trial by jury was intended. The first court was convened by Governor Brisbane without provision for trial by jury. In the controversy which followed it was determined that as the courts were constituted to mirror the English system where juries are used it was appropriate that trial by jury also be used in the Colony.
The first Court was created in Sydney on 1 March 1824. (3) The first Chairman was John Stephen who was also an additional judge of the Supreme Court, Commissioner of the Court of Requests, and His Majesty’s Solicitor General for New South Wales.
Courts of General and Quarter Sessions were continued by the ‘Australian Courts Act’, 1828 [9 Geo. IV c.83] which replaced the temporary ‘New South Wales Act’ of 1823. and by the Quarter Sessions and Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1829 [10 Geo. IV No. 1] .
An Act for Instituting and regulating Courts of General and Quarter Sessions in New South Wales, 1829 [10 Geo. IV No. 7] constituted the following courts of General and Quarter Sessions:
in the County of Argyle at Cookbundoon, Goulburn Plains and Inverary;
in the County of Bathurst at Bathurst
in the County of Camden at Bong Bong, Shoal-Haven, Stonequarry Creek and Wollongong or Kiama
in the County of Cumberland at Bringelly at Brisbane Water, Campbelltown, Liverpool, Parramatta, Penrith, Sydney and Wiseman’s Ferry;
in the County of Gloucester at Carrabeen, Port Stephens on Hunter’s River, at Maitland, Merton, Newcastle, Paterson’s Plains, Patrick’s Plains, and Luskintyre and Segenhoe;
in the County of Londonderry at Wellington Valley;
in the County of Westmoreland at Cox’s River and Emu Plains
in the County of St Vincent at Mount Elringrington, Narrigo and Ulladolla
and at the North Bank of the River Manning. (4)
It would appear that not all of these courts were operational for many years. In fact records suggest that in addition to the Sydney Court that was operational, only the Courts of Quarter Sessions at Maitland that was established on 1 August 1836, Bathurst on 27 November 1836 and Berrima established on 1 March 1840 (apparently succeeded by the Goulburn Court in January 1848) were operational prior to 1858. (5)
In addition to the jurisdiction to try convicts, the Act clarified the role of the courts in regard to free persons who could be tried before jury consisting of seven ‘Commissioned officers of His Majesty’s sea and land forces’. (6)
The Act provided for a Chairman of the Courts of Quarter Sessions in each of the districts where courts were established. The Chairman was to be a person ‘possessing competent knowledge of the Law’. The method of selection was that the Justices of the district were to assemble and elect a chairman from their number. A minute of the meeting was to be sent to the Colonial Secretary. The Governor was to declare the names of the elected chairmen. Chairmen were to be elected annually. (7)
Courts established under this Act were clearly perceived as a new system and existing courts were to remain in place until the new courts were established. (8)
The Act was amended in1834 to enable the Governor to appoint a chairman in the more remote places and for the replacement of a chairman in the case of illness, death or removal. (9)
The method of electing a Chairman for the courts was further regulated by An Act to alter and improve the mode of electing a Chairman for Courts of General and Quarter Sessions in New South Wales, 1839 [3 Victoria Act No. 10] which provided a form to be submitted to the Colonial Secretary following the election by the Justices. (10) Further amendment to the election of chairman enabled the Governor to appoint a Chairman in the default of election or in the case of the illness, death or other absence of the elected chairman. (11). The role of the Chairman was expanded enabling him to act alone when the necessary number of justices were not present, (12) and the legislation was altered to enable justice other than the Chairman to open and adjourn hearings when the Chairman was unable to be present. (13)
The existing legislation relating to the election of Chairmen of the Courts of General and Quarter Session was repealed by the District Courts Act, 1858 [22 Victoria No. 18] under which judges of the District Court became Chairmen of the Quarter Sessions ex officio. (14) The same legislation expanded the jurisdiction of the Quarter Sessions to include hearing all crimes and misdemeanours other than those punishable by death. (15)
Following this legislation both a proliferation of courts and the establishment of a district arrangement of the courts developed. The hearing dates for Quarter Sessions at each place were proclaimed in the NSW Government Gazette usually at the beginning of each year.
The system of Courts of General and Quarter Sessions continued until 1973 when a criminal jurisdiction was bestowed upon the District Courts by the District Court Act 1973 (Act No.9, 1973), although the Courts were entitled to remain in existence until current business was complete. (16)
The District Courts Act, 1973 was proclaimed to commence on 1 July 1973. (17)
(1) An Act for the better administration of Justice … 1823 s. XIX
(2) Loc. cit.
(3) Returns of the Colony, 1837, p.140.
(4) General and Quarter Sessions Act, 1829 s. 1.
(5) Ibid., s. 4.
(6) Returns of the Colony, 1822-.
(7) General and Quarter Sessions Act, 1829 ss.5-6.
(8) Ibid., s.8.
(9) An Act to amend An Act for instituting Courts of General and Quarter Sessions in New South Wales, 1834 ss. 2-3.
(10) s.2 and Schedule.
(11) An Act to enable the governor to appoint a Chairman of General and Quarter Sessions in default of the election of such Chairman by the Magistracy …, 1852 s.1.
(12) Ibid., s.3.
(13) Ibid., s.4.
(14) District Courts Act, 1858 s.25.
(15) Loc. cit.
(16) District Court Act, 1973 ss.167, 194.
(17) NSW Government Gazette, 8 June 1973, p.2158.