No Common Creation

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Judges of the High Court of Australia (seated left to right): Edmund Barton, Samuel Griffith and Richard O'Connor, with court officials, 1903 (A12340, 1)

The High Court of Australia is a creation of Federation. Alfred Deakin called it 'no common creation', because it is both the highest court of appeal in Australia and the body responsible for determining the meaning and powers of the Constitution.

As set out in the Australian Constitution, the High Court is a 'federal supreme court' designed to exercise the judicial power of Australia’s federal system. While the federal parliament makes laws on behalf of the Australian people, the High Court’s role is to interpret and apply the law.

Alfred Deakin, later Australia's second prime minister, introduced the bill to establish the High Court in 1903. The Judiciary Act was passed that year and the High Court opened officially in Melbourne on 6 October. It took up its permanent home in the High Court building in Canberra in 1980.

In the exhibition

'A balancing act' shows how High Court Justices have interpreted the Constitution in three landmark cases:

  • In the Engineers case in 1920 they decided that the Commonwealth government had the power to determine the pay and conditions of people employed in the engineering industry across Australia.
  • In the Communist Party case in 1951 they declared that the Menzies’ government Communist Party Dissolution Act was invalid.
  • In the Tasmanian Dam case in 1983 they concluded that the Commonwealth's obligation to an international treaty allowed it to stop the Tasmanian government from proceeding with the Franklin Dam.

'Under the wig' provides a glimpse of the changing character of the High Court under the leadership of three different Chief Justices:

  • The Griffith Court, 1903–19, brought the spirit of Federation to the Court's first years.
  • The Dixon Court, 1952–64, was acclaimed as the Court's 'golden age' of interpreting the law.
  • The Mason Court, 1987–95, is known for its significant and sometimes controversial decisions, including the recognition of native title in the Mabo case.
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017