Old Court House Law Museum

The Museum

The Museum


The Old Court House Law Museum is one of only a few law museums in the world. The museum is housed in the City of Perth’s oldest building, constructed in 1836, next to the Supreme Court of Western Australia.

The museum promotes an understanding of the law, legal issues and the legal profession in Western Australia’s community and preserves the history of the law and the legal profession in Western Australia.

The museum’s interpretive displays, Small Court House Big Stories and People and The Law, are accompanied by an audio overview and take visitors on a journey through Western Australia’s legal history.

Visit the Museum

Location: Stirling Gardens, corner of Barrack Street and St Georges Terrace, Perth (next to the Supreme Court of Western Australia)
Hours: Tuesday to Friday 10.00am to 4.00pm
Cost: Free entry
Phone: (08) 9324 8688
Email: museum@lawsocietywa.asn.au

The museum is a community service managed by the Law Society of Western Australia and sponsored by the Public Purposes Trust and the Department of Justice.

Lotterywest has kindly provided a grant for exhibition fabrication and installation. Approximately one third of all money raised from the sale of Lotterywest Games is distributed through Lotterywest Grants to nearly 1000 different community organisations as well as the arts, sports, and health sectors.

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Early Days
The Old Court House is Perth’s oldest public building and was the most prominent building in the early days of the Swan River Colony. For the first six years of the Colony, court was held in the Anglican Church of St James, a small building with rush walls and a thatched roof.

In 1836 Governor Stirling called for tenders for the construction of a new court and accepted the lowest bid of ₤698. The building was designed by the colony’s Civil Engineer, Henry William Reveley. When it opened in 1837 it also served as a church for all denominations and as a schoolroom.

Concert Hall
The Old Court House was important in the early musical life of the colonists and was the scene of the first public concert. In 1846, Dom Salvado, a Spanish Benedictine Monk, gave a piano recital in the courtroom to raise funds to develop a mission. Salvado walked more than 100 kilometres to Perth from near New Norcia and gave a Bellini recital to a packed audience in the ragged clothes he arrived in.

Trial of John Gaven
The trial of John Gaven, the first European executed in the Colony, took place in the Old Court House in 1844. Gaven, a petty thief, was 15 years old when he was transported from Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight and apprenticed to the Pollard family in the South West. Within a few months of his arrival, he was accused of the murder of 18 year old George Pollard. He was found guilty in the Old Court House and was hanged three days later outside the Roundhouse in Fremantle on Easter Saturday.

In February 1849 a meeting of State importance was held in the Old Court House. In response to a labour shortage, farmers and merchants called a meeting at which a motion was passed in favour of a full penal colony. The following year convicts began to arrive.

Representative Government
The Old Court House was the venue for a public meeting to demand Representative Government. The demands were unsuccessful until 1870.

Arbitration Court
From 1905 to 1964 the State Industrial Arbitration Court proceedings were held in the Old Court House.

Law Society of Western Australia
From 1965 to 1987 the Old Court House served as the office of the Law Society of Western Australia.

Francis Burt Law Education Centre and Museum
In 1987 the building was refurbished, opened to the public and named the Francis Burt Law Education Centre and Museum, a community legal education centre and one of the few law museums worldwide.

Heritage Site
In 1992 the Court House was listed by the National Trust as a Heritage Site.

Old Court House Law Museum
In 2011 the Francis Burt Law Education Centre and Museum was renamed the Old Court House Law Museum.

Redesign of the Museum
Thanks to funding support from Lotterywest, the Old Court House Law Museum has been undergoing a redesign since 2009.

To begin this redesign, an interpretation plan was commissioned and was completed in 2010. Following recommendations in the interpretation plan the Museum completed stage 1, an audio tour, in 2011.

Stage 2, the exhibition Small Court House, Big Stories: The first 50 years of law in Western Australia was completed in 2012.

Stage 3, People and the Law was installed in 2014 and the design for the stage 3, From Past to Present: The changing face of the law, is now complete.

The final stage of the redesign is expected to be completed by late 2016 subject to obtaining funding.

For more information about the museum’s history please read The Old Court House: A Brief History.

Temporary Exhibitions

Temporary Exhibitions


John Burdett Wittenoom – Colonial Chaplain, Justice of the Peace, Educator, Community Figure

One of the earliest civic leaders in a fledgling colony, John Burdett Wittenoom arrived in Fremantle aboard the Wanstead on 30 January 1830.

A widower with four boys, he was accompanied by his sister Eliza, braving a seven month sea journey to commence his role as Colonial Chaplain.


As the only ordained minister of any denomination in the colony until 1836, Wittenoom presided over all funerals, marriages and baptisms in addition to conducting Anglican services. He travelled on horseback to the port at Fremantle and to Guildford, the agricultural township on the Upper Swan, to hold services – under a tree in the early days.

In a new world that seemed for much of the time to offer very little comforts, the solace of religion was of the utmost importance; it was this solace that Wittenoom offered.

Justice of the Peace

Wittenoom was appointed as one of eight foundational Justices of the Peace. Western Australia’s judicial system was founded on English Law, simplified and adapted by Judge William Henry Mackie to suit the local circumstances of the fledgling colony.

The new court house opened on 2 January 1837. During the first decade of its opening Wittenoom was a frequent visitor for the building also served as a venue for Wittenoom’s religious services and school classes.


As a former Headmaster of a Grammar School in England, Wittenoom was actively involved in the Colony as a teacher and administrator. He played a critical role in establishing the Colony’s first school which until 1854 was located in the court house, and later oversaw the establishment of an Education committee.

Community Figure

Wittenoom worked on a number of charitable committees in addition to his religious and political roles. Like many of his Victorian contemporaries he had a strong sense of responsibility towards building a civilised society. Wittenoom’s clerical, judicial and pedagogical roles allowed him to come into contact with a wide section of Western Australian society, a multifaceted and valuable role in a fledgling colony such as the one he settled in.

^ The view from Mount Eliza around 1835 painted by Charles Wittenoom, brother of John, courtesy Wittenoom family.

^ John Burdett Wittenoom, artist unknown, courtesy Wittenoom family.

^ Water colour of the town of Perth, the Reverend Wittenoom is seen riding his horse and buggy, by Charles Wittenoom, brother of John, Wittenoom family, 2.10, courtesy Wittenoom family.

^ The Colonial Chaplain’s house on Barrack Street. Courtesy Wittenoom Family.

Public Programmes

Public Programmes


The Law Society’s Old Court House Law Museum offers a series of free events for the community, including school holiday programmes and Heritage Conversations. Click below to find out more.

School Holiday Programmes

Keys to History

17 April – 27 April 2018 | Tuesdays – Fridays | 10.00am – 4.00pm

Come and explore the Old Court House Law Museum inside and out with our free school holiday activity, Keys to History.

Follow three easy steps to unlock the Museum’s secrets. Match the key colours to different coloured exhibition spaces at the Old Court House. The orange key is the museum exterior.

Then find the key photo of objects and items in each exhibition space and finally answer the key questions relating to the photo. Each side of the key has a different question.

There are two activities available depending on age. One is suitable for ages 4-7 and another for ages 7-12. The Museum is open Tuesday to Friday from 10.00am to 4.00pm.

Treasure Hunt in the Stirling Gardens

Operating from the Old Court House Law Museum from Tuesday 9th to Thursday 25th January from 10am until 4pm, join us for a Treasure Hunt in the Stirling Gardens. The activity is available for two age groups, junior 3 to 6 years who search for carvings in the park and circle their picture and a treasure hunt for 7 to 12 year olds, who will search for items in Stirling Gardens to find the answers to the questions we have prepared. Once you find the answer you record the coordinates for this position and when all questions have been answered, you use a decipher sheet to find the mystery word and solve one last clue!

Bookings aren’t required, FREE event 10am to 4pm daily.
We are open Tuesday to Friday.

Heritage Conversation Events

Heritage Days Weekend

Heritage Days Weekend

From time to time, the Museum will be open on weekends as part of Heritage Perth’s Heritage Days Weekend.

Further details available soon.

Heritage Conversation Event: May 2018

An annual event at the Museum which a prominent speaker presents on Western Australian heritage during the National Trust Heritage Festival and Law Week.

Further details available soon.

Law Week and Australian Heritage Festival

My Culture My Story; Aboriginal Women Leaders in Law

COST: Free – Register for your free ticket via Eventbrite by clicking here

DATE: Friday, 18 May 2018, 11.00am – 12.30pm at the Museum

Join us at the Old Court House Law Museum as we host a panel discussion led by Deanne Fitzgerald Senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisor at the Western Australian Museum. Deanne will be discussing the life experiences of our panellists, Kelsi Forrest who was awarded the inaugural Aboriginal Women’s Legal Education Trust Scholarship offered by the Women Lawyers of WA in 2012 and who now works for Roe Legal, Ashleigh Lindsay who works at Herbert Smith Freehills and Kate George, the first Aboriginal person to commence law at the University of Western Australia and the first Aboriginal graduate from the Australian National University. She is also the first Aboriginal woman admitted to practise law in WA. Other topics to be discussed will include the impact of the law, contribution to community issues and inspiration and the importance for education for young people.

This discussion provides the opportunity for the legal profession to engage with the community to build a shared understanding of the vital role the law plays in our society. Following the session, we will be hosting a Q and A to allow audience members to have their questions answered. The Museum is also open on the day.




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.

Richard Offen

Executive Director, Heritage Perth

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 is important for two reasons, firstly it is the oldest standing building in the city centre and, as such, is a very significant reminder of the early days of the Swan River Colony’s struggles to establish itself on the banks of the river.

Secondly, as a law museum, it provides a highly engaging insight into the history of law and order in Western Australia, reminding us of past legal triumphs and also things we should never allow to happen again.

What is one of the most significant stories, in your mind, in the Old Court House Law Museum?

For me, the most interesting sections are those exhibits explaining the history of Noongar law, reminding us of 40,000 years of heritage, and establishment of a judicial system in the early colony.

Both these aspects of this beautiful old building offer the community, and visitors from beyond, a fascinating and engaging insight into the history of a subject which is often forgotten by the public. Perth is lucky to have this treasure, one of only a handful of law museums around the world.

Robert Mitchell

Executive Officer, Museums Western Australia

What is the value of the Old Court House Law Museum to the Law Society, its members and the wider community?

I think of the Old Court House Law Museum as a pair of X-ray glasses providing the uninitiated (the general public outside the legal profession and its ancillaries) an opportunity to explore and better understand the role of peace, order and good government in our society.

For many of us, a major part of our understanding of the law is based on police or courtroom dramas produced in the United States. This is supplemented by political headlines using statistics, bad behaviour or confrontation to lament lack of standards, lack of toughness, bias or racism to promote one extreme or the other as a solution to society’s problems.

Entertaining, diverting, irritating or motivating as all of the above may be, these exposures perhaps do not provide a rational and reasoned view of our courts, legal system and traditions of laws and justice. This is where the Old Court House Law Museum plays a valuable and increasingly valued role in the community. Whether through school programs or public visits, the Museum provides a sound basis for understanding one of the processes that classifies us as a civil society. The Museum provides a foundation to connect our legal system to the foundations of our community.

Some of the objects at the Museum which I think provide this connection I would describe as symbols of authority and sovereignty, be they seals, letterheads or embossed stamps. These heraldic appendages provide a sense of continuity, tradition, probity and executive delegation. As such they provide a sense of confidence and trust. We often overlook these symbols which appear on documents ranging from our driver’s licence, to our rates notice to notification for jury duty. There is a story behind every one, which the Museum is able from time to time to tell.

The pursuit of social justice, human rights, or health and wellbeing are outcomes of our concepts of peace, order and good government. As curator at the Australian Army Museum of Western Australia, I can tell the stories of service and sacrifice to preserve these values. Through the stories of legislation, advocacy, professional excellence, custom, precedent and tradition, the Old Court House Law Museum can promote an understanding of the foundations of social justice and human rights and their contribution to community health and wellbeing.

Museums have been characterised as a safe place for dangerous ideas. Taken further, the Old Court House Law Museum is a place where we can understand and appreciate the best ideas.

The Hon Robert Nicholson AO

Former Federal Court Judge, founding member of the Museum and Francis Burt Law Education Programme

What is the value of the Old Court House Law Museum to the Law Society, its members and the wider community?

The practice of law cannot be sensibly viewed in isolation either from society or from the history in which the law has been practiced over the course of time. The Old Court House Law Museum provides the opportunity for practitioners of the moment to have a glance of what it was like to be in their position in the past.

It also provides to the profession a place in which to preserve the present as we have known it. Nowhere has this been more true than in the time when technology has recast the methods of legal practice to a measure not previously contemplated.

What is one of the most significant stories, in your mind, in the Old Court House Law Museum?

My most significant story of the time I spent on the Board of the Francis Burt Law Education Centre (now Programme) was the moment when another Board member, Mrs Elizabeth Picton-Warlow, pointed out that if we wanted to develop we had to be part of legal education. It was so true and upon adoption largely shaped our future activities.

The Programme then sought to provide to the community and schools an education in what the law is about, why it was important to the community and how it represented the concept of justice.

How can the Old Court House Law Museum play a role in the pursuit of social justice, human rights, or health and wellbeing?

Social justice, human rights and health and wellbeing are all part of the spectrum of life to which the law contributes. Without social justice or human rights, our health and wellbeing could be seriously affected.

Reference to life in societies where the rule of law is non-existent and where dictatorial will or executive power rule society, shows most dramatically that this is so. The rule of law is the lynch-pin of our world. By making that connection apparent to the young and to the public the Museum and the Programme can contribute to its future maintenance and endurance.