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Rosemary Annable, A Setting for Justice: building for the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

Rosemary Annable, A Setting for Justice: building for the Supreme Court of New South Wales, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2007, 192 pages; ISBN 978 086840 917 77.

When seeking an author for a history of the complex of buildings which make up the Law Courts Buildings on the corner of King and Elizabeth Streets, Sydney, the Attorney-General's Department did not have to go further than its closest neighbour by selecting Rosemary Annable, honorary archivist of St James' Anglican Church, who is also a Fellow and Past President of the RAHS. She has been able to draw upon many public collections and the collections of organisations, institutions and individuals, but her greatest resource has been the structures themselves. Much was revealed as work progressed on the conservation of this important group of heritage buildings.

As the Chief Justice of New South Wales says in his foreword, the 'volume contains some of the original research upon which the restoration was based ... It is a definitive and much welcome history of one aspect, but a vital aspect, of the history of the Supreme Court of New South Wales'. Dr Annable traces the early history of the rule of law and the court system in the colony of New South Wales, describes

the peregrinations of the Court, the intervention of Commissioner Thomas Bigge and the occupation of the core of the current building in 1827. She tracks the increase in the Court's workload and the construction of the courthouse at Darlinghurst, the rehousing of the Crown Law Offices and the Registry of Deeds and the first of many rearrangements of the space in 1843-44.

The history of the Registrar-General's Department's tenure of part of the site is traced as is the 1930s proposal for the replanning of Macquarie Street with a grand suite of buildings which would have involved the demolition of the Government House stables (Conservatorium), the Rum Hospital (Parliament House), Sydney Hospital and the Mint. Nothing, however, came of these plans and it was not until the third quarter of the twentieth century that new accommodation for both State and Federal Courts was realised. The contract for the construction of that building included provision for the demolition of the old Supreme Court in preparation for which a photographic record was made of the buildings.

Fortuitously the commencement of construction in the early 1970s coincided with a realisation of the losses which Sydney had suffered in the 1950s and 1960s redevelopment boom. Public opinion soon swung against the new, represented by the Law Courts building, which was dramatically changing the scale of Queen's Square, isolating St James' Church and accidentally emphasising the historical significance of the old Supreme Court buildings and the constitutional role and function of the Court itself.

June 1973 marked a turning point in the fortunes of the buildings when Chief Justice John Kerr wrote to the Attorney-General expressing his clear conviction that the Supreme Court buildings should be retained. The National Trust, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, the Royal Australian Planning Institute and the RAHS amongst others swiftly fell in behind the Chief Justice and in less than a year Cabinet cancelled that part of the contract which provided for the demolition of the existing Supreme Court complex.

The District and Supreme Courts continued intermittently to use the building and in the latter part of the 1970s the first significant restoration program took place. By 1994 the building was again empty and the Supreme Court decided to resume occupation of its original home for criminal jury trials. This necessitated a new master plan for the site and major new work which was further complicated when a fire caused extensive damage.

The sequence of alterations and additions are explained in a series of models which clarify the complex progression of infill, demolition and extension on this confined site in a way that words could not achieve. The book is lavishly and usefully illustrated with contemporary paintings and photographs. Dr Annable has done an excellent job in illuminating the complex history of the structure and the workplace of many generations of legal practitioners of this State and has placed the many changes in their historical context.

Richard d'Apice

Honorary Solicitor, RAHS
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Author:d'Apice, Richard
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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