History of the Local Court
The New South Wales Local Court traces its origin to the bench of Sydney magistrates established by Governor Phillip in the late 18th century. Made up of more than 150 courts with the power to hear cases in civil, criminal and family law, it is now the largest court in Australia. It is where all criminal and some civil cases first enter the court system. Today, 98 per cent of all criminal and civil cases are finalised in the Local Court.
The First Charter of Justice – 1787
The First Charter of Justice authorised the governor, lieutenant governor and judge advocate with the power to convene a criminal court. The governor held the power to appoint and dismiss magistrates. A number of civil and military officers were appointed as justices of the peace or magistrates. They inherited similar powers to English justices of the peace to determine minor criminal charges and convict people in discipline cases.
The charter also created a court of civil jurisdiction to hear and decide cases where pleas related to real and personal property, debts, contracts, grants of probate and to administer intestate estates.
Proceedings were recorded and given to the governor for inspection.
First paid magistrate – 1810
D'Arcy Wentworth became the first paid magistrate. Until this time, the role of a magistrate was honorary and magistrates had to combine their magistrate duties with other positions.
First courthouse – 1821
The oldest existing local court in New South Wales was built in Windsor. Over 300 courthouses have been built in NSW since settlement.
Magistrates get paid – 1830
Payment of magistrates became common practice.
New Courts of Petty Sessions – 1832
Offenders Punishment and Justices Summary Jurisdiction Act (Act 3 William IV C. 3) was assented to. It defined the powers and authorities of the Courts of Petty Sessions and regulated the summary jurisdiction of the justices of the peace.
Under the Act, two or more justices sitting together could convict people on charges of theft, drunkenness, disobedience of orders, neglect of or running away from work, abusive language to his or her master or other disorderly or dishonest conduct. Other duties formerly performed by the bench of magistrates were performed by the justices in Petty Sessions.
The Act also allowed the appointment of a clerk at each location where Petty Sessions was held.
The Courts of Petty Sessions was formally established in New South Wales by proclamation in the Government Gazette. The name 'Court of Petty Sessions' was used commonly until this time without any statutory basis. Petty Sessions were held in the following locations:
- Bong Bong or Berrima
- Goulburn Plains
- Paterson's Plains
- Port Macquarie
- Port Stephens
- Stonequarry Creek
Metropolitan Magistrates Act – 1881
'Skilled and trained' stipendiary magistrates were created under the Metropolitan Magistrates Act 1881 for the Sydney district and they had exclusive jurisdiction to deal with criminal summary offences in Sydney.
Government paid magistrates had been increasingly seen to be more impartial in deciding cases and had greater knowledge and experience in legal matters. Stipendary magistrates were not required to be qualified lawyers but were selected based on an assessment of their training and efficiency as a clerk of Petty Sessions.
Justices Act – 1902
Magistrates and Courts of Petty Session continued to be appointed under the Justices Act 1902 (NSW).
Legal qualifications required for magistrates – 1955
Newly appointed magistrates were required to have legal qualifications.
Courts of Petty Sessions becomes Local Court – 1985
Local Courts Act 1982 abolished Courts of Petty Sessions by changing its name to the Local Court.
Judicial Officers Act – 1986
Magistrates become independent judicial officers under the Judicial Officers Act 1986.
Magistrates retirement age extended – 2003
The retirement age of magistrates was extended to 72 years old, the same as judges of superior courts.
'Your Honour' – 2004
The form of address for magistrates in court changed from 'Your Worship' to 'Your Honour' in line with judges of superior courts.
Magistrates retirement age extended – 2018
The retirement age of magistrates was extended to 75 years old, the same as judges of superior courts.