Dr Peter Handford
Senior Honorary Research Fellow, The University of Western Australia
Convenor, Oral History, Museum and Building Sub-committee
What is the value of the Old Court House Law Museum to the Law Society, its members and the wider community?
The Old Court House Law Museum serves as an important reminder of the law and the legal system in the early years of European settlement.
Our court buildings reflect our legal history: the David Malcolm Justice Centre is a modern building, representative of a modern legal system, while the 1903 Supreme Court is a reminder of a simpler age when the court system consisted of the Supreme Court itself, the Local Courts and the Courts of Petty Sessions.
When it was built in 1837, the Old Court House was home to the colony’s original judicial institutions: the Civil Court, presided over by the Chairman, first Mackie and then Moore, and the Court of Quarter Sessions for criminal cases, held before two Justices of the Peace. These were originally the only courts, designed to be a very simple court system appropriate for the needs of a small colony: so, for example, there was little equitable jurisdiction, in an attempt to spare Western Australia the full impact of the unreformed English Chancery practice as portrayed in Dickens’s Bleak House.
In the end, WA had to move forward: later judges highlighted the lack of equity jurisdiction, and so the Supreme Court was created in 1861.
By this time court sittings had moved to Beaufort St, though the Supreme Court returned to sit in the Old Court House from 1863 to 1880, and again from 1895 to 1903. But the Museum displays are designed to concentrate on the first 50 years or so of European settlement, depicting the struggle to dispense justice in a small colony far from the home of English law.
Incidentally, the Old Court House is also a physical reminder of the importance of teaching legal history to students – a subject sadly not now taught in most of our Law Schools.
What is one of the most significant stories, in your mind, in the Old Court House Law Museum?
A panel display and a filmed dramatisation tell the story of the trial of Weewar in 1842. Weewar was an Aboriginal man charged with wilful murder, after he had carried out the tribally sanctioned killing of another Aboriginal. He was required to plead to the charge, found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, though his sentence was eventually commuted to imprisonment, served on Rottnest Island.
The case is important because it confirmed that the English law introduced in Western Australia in 1829 applied not only to the settlers but also to the Aboriginal people, even in a case such as this where the crime was committed by one Aboriginal against another, and was done in the course of carrying out Aboriginal justice.
Like the earlier New South Wales case of R v Jack Congo Murrell in 1836, it demonstrated that the English settlers had assumed sovereignty over all the inhabitants, including the Aboriginal inhabitants.
Counsel for Jack Congo Murrell argued that if a person goes to a foreign country, he must expect to obey the local laws, rather than the opposite situation – an argument that, viewed with present-day eyes, seems entirely rational. However, in the 1830s and 1840s the opposite point of view won the day – with tremendous consequences for the law, and for the original inhabitants of Western Australia.
How can the Old Court House Law Museum play a role in the pursuit of social justice, human rights, or health and wellbeing?
The stories told in the museum displays focus on various social justice and human rights issues in a historical context. They have been chosen to highlight issues that are just as relevant today as when they took place.
The Francis Burt Legal Education Programme has a mission to educate the public generally, and in particular school students, about legal issues, and the Museum plays an important part in this, as do the mock trial competitions and the Programme’s other activities, many of which take place in the Museum itself. By such means, Perth’s oldest building has an important contemporary role to play in educating people about human rights and social justice.