Timetable of Legal History logoIn 1787, the English government imposed a basic criminal justice system upon its penal colony of New South Wales (then, the entire Eastern half of the Australian continent). Gov. Arthur Philip read the legal documents to the assembled convicts and officers at Sydney.

To many, this was the First Charter of Justice because it provided for basic criminal justice courts. Judges were chosen amongst the Navy officers and there were no lawyers except for a few disgraced English barristers amongst the convicts. Punishment was barbaric with convicts which hundreds of times for small offenses.

Many were whipped to death. Trials were conducted more like court-martials than like regular criminal court. There were no trials by jury.

However, the growing non-penal population of Australia, and a commercial network, led to the creation of civil courts starting in 1814, under the leadership of one of Australia's first lawyers, Ellis Bent, who had been sent by the British to supervise justice and equality. Bent’s reforms are sometimes referred to as the Second Charter Justice but they were insufficient. The governor of the territory began to governed by decree.

Charter of Justice stampAgain, in receipt of numerous complaints, the British government appointed John Thomas Bigge, then Chief Justice of Trinidad, to conduct a Royal commission of inquiry into the New South Wales justice system. His mandate:

"... to consider whether the alterations introduced into the constitution of the courts in 1814 have rendered them adequate to the wants of the inhabitants and to the due administration of criminal and civil justice; and, if they still appear to be defective to suggest the improvements of which you conceive they are susceptible.”

Bigge's report was disappointing but was given to Francis Forbes, the former Chief Justice of Newfoundland, who converted it into a workable statute for reform, to convert the penal colony into a civil colony of England. The Charter of Justice was enacted by the British Parliament on October 13, 1823, and promulgated into law on May 17, 1824.Charter of Justice, page 1

The law became a fundamental basic constitutional statute of the modern state of Australia. It abolished the military courts and introduced to the Australia colony courts in the English model, along with the full gamut of English law.

Forbes, who became the first chief justice of the supreme Court of New South Wales, later described the essence of the 1824 Charter of Justice as follows:

"The laws of England are essential if the laws of New South Wales, that the Government is essentially an English Government; and that the courts are essentially the courts at Westminster."

The Charter established the Supreme Court of New South Wales with both civil and criminal jurisdictions. It granted the Chief Justice rank and precedence over all subjects except the Governor or the Acting Governor and the appointment of court officers and for admission to the court of legal practitioners. Jury trials were introduced as was a legislative council. The transition became known to some as the Third Charter of Justice.

On May 17, 1824, a bamboo box was carefully opened and the 6-page parchment of the Charter of justice was read out loud and by that act became law in New South Wales.

Australia had taken the first step towards nationhood.


  • 27 George III, Chapter 2 "Act to provide for the better administration of justice in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land and for the more effectual government thereof
  • 4 George IV, Chapter 96 (1823)
  • 9 George IV, Chapter 83
  • Hughes, R., The Fatal Shore (London: Pan Books, 1988)
  • Postage stamp is a courtesy of the Kenneth Plummer Stamp Collection, with thanks to his son Brian for the use thereof.