Rule of Law

Australian democracy is based on the rule of law. This means that every person, regardless of who they are, is subject to the same law and has access to the same legal and judicial processes.

The rule of law is enshrined in the Australian Constitution. It restricts the powers of government and parliament and protects against the influence of arbitrary power. In our judicial system, judges interpret the rule of law by balancing community rights and freedoms with the powers of government, security and law enforcement agencies.

The Australian Act, 1986
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Australian democracy is based on the rule of law. This means that every person, regardless of who they are, is subject to the same law and has access to the same legal and judicial processes.

The rule of law is enshrined in the Australian Constitution. It restricts the powers of government and parliament and protects against the influence of arbitrary power. In our judicial system, judges interpret the rule of law by balancing community rights and freedoms with the powers of government, security and law enforcement agencies.

The Australian Act, 1986
1787

First criminal court

First criminal court

The New South Wales Courts Act 1787 (UK) establishes the first criminal court in Australia to impose discipline in the new penal colony.


First Charter of Justice

First Charter of Justice

Australia’s first Charter of Justice is issued by the British Parliament. This provides the authority for the establishment of the first NSW Courts of Criminal and Civil Jurisdiction, and establishes a Deputy Judge-Advocate, a Civil Court and six court officers to be appointed by the Governor. The Governor is required to give his permission for any death sentence imposed by the Court, and is empowered to give pardons. The Civil Court has the power to deal with disputes over property and has jurisdiction over wills and estates. A Second Charter established in 1814 creates the three Courts of Civil Judicature: Governor’s Court, Supreme Court and Lieutenant Governor’s Court.


1788

First criminal case

First criminal case

Governor Phillip assembles Australia’s first Court of Criminal Jurisdiction, and Samuel Barsby is the first person to be brought before Judge-Advocate David Collins and the six officers of the Court. Barbsy is found guilty of personally abusing a drum major in the Detachment of Marines and of striking a drummer with an adze. He is sentenced to receive 150 lashes with a cat-o’-nine-tails.


First civil case

First civil case

In the first civil court action in Australia, convicts Henry Cable and his wife successfully sue the captain of their transportation vessel over a lost parcel. Cable later becomes a merchant in New South Wales.


1804

Convict rebellion at Castle Hill

Convict rebellion at Castle Hill

One of Australia’s first convict uprisings occurs at Castle Hill in New South Wales when predominantly Irish Catholic convicts attempt to escape from servitude. After clashing with government troops the rebel leader, Philip Cunningham, is captured and hanged.


1808

Rum Rebellion

Rum Rebellion

Tensions over power in the new colony erupt when Governor William Bligh arrests John Macarthur, a prominent pastoralist, and refuses him the bail granted by an illegally constituted court. The commander of the NSW Corps, Major George Johnston, deposes Bligh and assumes government of the colony. Macarthur serves as colonial secretary until Bligh is replaced by Lieutenant-Colonel Foveaux. Johnston is later dismissed for his part in the mutiny, while Macarthur is exiled from the colony for seven years.


1819

Emancipists’ petition

Emancipists’ petition

Colonists inherit the Westminster tradition of petitioning the House of Commons. One of Australia’s earliest petitions to the Prince Regent concerns civil and commercial limitations in the colonies, and the lack of an effective legal system. The petition marks the emergence of the Emancipists as a political force in the colonies.


1821

Petition for rights of ex-convicts

Petition for rights of ex-convicts

The Emancipists successfully petition King George IV following an 1817 King’s Bench ruling that people freed by governor’s pardon, unlike those freed by pardons issued under the Great Seal in London, cannot pursue legal action or own property. The ruling is overturned by the New South Wales Act 1823 (UK).


1823

Foundations of democracy

Foundations of democracy

The Charter of Justice 13 October 1823 (UK) establishes a system of justice for Van Diemen’s Land and provides for the appointment of John Lewes Pedder to preside over it as Chief Justice. The New South Wales Act 1823 (UK) authorises the establishment of a legislative council in New South Wales and Australia’s first supreme courts in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, as well as providing for Van Diemen’s Land to become a separate colony. The Legislative Council conducts its first meeting in August 1824. These new laws follow criticisms of the administration and justice system in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land by Commissioner John Thomas Bigge.


1828

Trial by jury established

Trial by jury established

The Australian Courts Act 1828 (UK) ensures that the laws of England will be applied in the two existing Australian colonies: New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. The Act strengthens the role of both supreme courts, as appeals from supreme court decisions to the Governor are ended. It provides for trial by jury in the Supreme Court in civil cases and empowers the Governor to introduce general trial by jury in criminal matters. Australian statute law thus has a firm foundation, but is able to evolve according to its own conditions and needs. Trial by jury for people charged under criminal law is established in 1833 in New South Wales and, in limited circumstances, in 1834 in Van Diemen’s Land.


1885

Australasian Federal Council

Australasian Federal Council

British Parliament establishes the Australasian Federal Council to legislate on issues such as Federation, defence, Pacific relations and quarantine. South Australia withdraws in 1891, while New South Wales and New Zealand never join.


1903

High Court of Australia established

High Court of Australia established

Section 71 of the Constitution establishes the High Court of Australia, but the first Bench appointments come with the passage of the Judiciary Act 1903. Sir Samuel Griffith, Sir Edmund Barton and Richard O’Connor are the first High Court members.


1976

Female firsts in the judiciary

Female firsts in the judiciary

Pat O’Shane is admitted to the Bar, becoming Australia’s first female Aboriginal barrister. Later that year, Justice Elizabeth Evatt is the first woman to be appointed as Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia.


1986

Abolition of appeal to the Privy Council

Abolition of appeal to the Privy Council

With the passing of the Australia Act 1986 (Cth) and Australia Act 1986 (UK), Australian courts, other than the High Court, no longer have to take appeals to the Privy Council, although it remains theoretically possible for some appeals to be taken under Section 74 of the Constitution. Britain can no longer legislate for any part of Australia, and the states can now legislate to repeal or amend any UK legislation extending to them.


Right of appeal to Privy Council ends

Right of appeal to Privy Council ends

Australia adopts the Australia Act 1986 that provides for the High Court in Australia, rather than the Privy Council in the United Kingdom, to become the final court of appeal for Australian legal cases.