The Federation Press

Colonial Law Lords

The Judiciary and the Beginning of Responsible Government in New South Wales

Overview

Responsible Government made an unsteady start when granted to New South Wales in 1856. Still evolving until Federation, the concept was so unsettled as to create major contests between the judiciary and the other arms of government.

This book begins with the premature collapse of the first Ministry in August 1856. At stake were the Lower House’s objections to the Colony’s judges being members of the Upper House as “Bunyip Law Lords”. Chief Justice Stephen even aspired to be Lord Chancellor of New South Wales. Eventually, the Lower House prevailed.

It finishes with a ferocious clash in the 1880s between the Executive and the Judiciary, one of the most spectacular in Australia’s history. The populist Parkes Government refused to allow the disembarkation of Chinese immigrants from a ship in Sydney Harbour. The Supreme Court granted habeas corpus compelling their entry. The Government, driven by community fury, attempted to enforce its will by ministerial direction. Eventually it was forced to give way.

A NSW Sesquicentenary of Responsible Government publication.

Reviews

This short book is a foray into a slightly different area [from Dr Bennett’s historical biographies] as it looks at and reveals the workings of the early seat of Government in NSW, how it was expected that Supreme Court judges would sit on the Legislative Council and of how at that time, there was an air of thinking that that house of review should be modelled on the House of Lords with its members treated as pseudo lords of the Colony.
...
This book was written to commemorate the sesquicentenary of that event and like all of Dr. Bennett’s works, provides the reader with a perspective of one who is there, watching the events unfold. He does not present the story on the basis of his own views but leaves us able to interpret and react, according to our own perceptions.
Whilst this is a very short book, it is entertaining, enlightening and very easy to read. It again leaves us waiting for more from a fine lawyer and writer. - BJM, Law Letter (Tas), Spring 2006

The work illustrates the difficulty which the young colony overcame to establish its own model of responsible government. Most significantly, this included defining the degree of the separation of powers and working towards resolution of the tensions between the judicial and legislative arms of government. Interestingly, for a brief period in the 19th century serving judges of the NSW Supreme Court were also non-elected members of the legislature. ...
The work draws together contemporary newspaper articles, political cartoons and other reference materials to illustrate the issues of contention. Primary materials are used effectively to provide glimpses of the leading personalities involved in the debates of the day. - Ethos (Law Society ACT) June 2006