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As members of the legal profession shuffled through the previously bland corridor outside the Banco Court, there may not have been time to appreciate the remarkable transformation of level 13 of Sydney’s Law Courts building.

Guests were busily taking their seats inside the vast courtroom to celebrate two important facets of how the NSW Supreme Court is celebrating 200 years of existence. 

The first facet was the official launch of the book “Constant Guardian: Changing Times – The Supreme Court of New South Wales 1824 – 2024”. 

The second was the opening of the Supreme Court History Wall and Gallery. 

The 16th Chief Justice James Spigelman AC, who presided over the court’s 175th anniversary in 1999, was clearly impressed with how the bicentenary was being marked. 

“It’s quite amazing how you managed to engineer this project,” he observed. “I could never get this kind of money.” 

Spigelman spoke of his delight in reading Contant Guardian: Changing Times, which he said was devoid of cliches and full of photographs, enlivening the text. 

“It is a magnificent testament of the significance of the bicentenary of the court,” he said. 

Speaking ahead of Spigelman, current Chief Justice Andrew Bell, read a passage from the book, highlighting Spigelman’s role in recognising the significance of the court’s history. 

“17 May 2024 is the 200th anniversary of the first sitting of the Supreme Court of NSW. Only a handful of nations have such an old judicial institution, as Spigelman CJ liked to remind new legal practitioners.” 

“It was Jim Spigelman who really raised the historical significance of a court of this longevity and tradition and integrity,” Bell told the gathering.  

Spigelman thanked the authors of the respective chapters as well as the editors, Keith Mason AC KC and Larissa Reid. 

“Despite my past immersion in these very topics, reading this volume has been revelatory. I learned something new on virtually every page of the text,” he said. 

“The ability of our legal system to innovate and reform was apparent from the outset.” 

Spiegelman said although the focus of the book was the Supreme Court, “it is also about the role of law in our society and how that society has changed over time.” 

Mason recalled the book being commissioned in 2019, with a deadline of delivery before the bicentenary in May 2024. 

“That date seemed light years away at the time of conception,” he said. 

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Guest enjoys reading about the history of the Supreme Court of NSW

Mason thanked the many people involved in bringing the book together and noted some of the exciting discoveries made during research. 

These included the note of Justice William Burton from the Myall Creek trial, with the words ‘not guilty’ crossed out and replaced by ‘guilty’. 

There was also a newspaper report from 1947, about the mixed reaction of women to laws allowing them to sit on juries. 

A hotel employee was quoted as saying, “I think women would be better sitting on a clutch of eggs than on a jury… One or two women might have the brains for the job but the majority of women have not the calculating scientific mind which would be needed.” 

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The History Wall outside the Banco Court in the Law Courts building

Attention then turned to the history wall and gallery. 

NSW Governor Margaret Beazley AC KC, described the wall as “a masterpiece of a consolidated narrative.” 

Then it was time for the Governor to, as Chief Justice Bell remarked, cut the ribbon with a “blunt pair of scissors.” 

With the official proceedings complete, there was time for attendees to head back out of the court and see what all the fuss was about. 

Between conversations, they stopped and read the illuminated displays, highlighting key people and events in the court’s history. 

Down the corridor and around the corner, was the gallery, where portraits, sketches and photographs offer a vivid window onto the state’s legal history. 

The people in some of the older photographs featuring the King St complex speak to a different time, but the building itself seems to have changed little. 

The Supreme Court of NSW is being duly recognised in this, its 200th year, but the subtle symbols of its endurance have been there all along. 

“Constant Guardian: Changing Times – The Supreme Court of New South Wales 1824 – 2024” can be purchased here Buy Book — Constant Guardian Changing Times 

Images courtesy of Supreme Court of NSW