The Old Courthouse

There is a Thomas Hardy short story, On the Western Circuit, which concerns a barrister, a Lincoln’s-Inn man, whose love life is played out against the background of the Western Circuit, one of the six geographical circuits that make up the Bar of England and Wales.

For centuries the legal system has brought justice to country communities by sending judges “on circuit”. The barristers tag along in their train to earn their brief fees, “refreshers” and circuit fees. The Hardy story, apart from being intriguing in itself, always reminds me of how deeply embedded this legal tradition of the country circuit is.     

Look for the court houses as you flash through the country towns: sometimes chipped at the edges, but always solid and proud symbols of the western tradition. Of all the regional court houses however the most magnificent must be the Bendigo courthouse. Built between 1892 and 1896, the Italianate palazzo building compares with the old Post Office, which was also designed and built by Watson, McColloch and McAlpine. Architecturally and historically, the courthouse is simply brilliant.  

A testament to the court’s longevity is the graffiti gauged into the back of the benches of the Magistrate’s court. Some of it consists of wistful love notes; other parts are hateful slurs. Surprisingly, when I looked several years ago, I also found graffiti upstairs in the Supreme Court. This time in the press benches where bored Addy reporters over the decades had been carving their initials and dates. Although not all courthouse stories are boring. Tragedies and comedies have also unfurled in the form of murder and robbery and the minor infringements in between.

It is a great thing and not to be taken for granted, that we are able to pursue justice within the harbour of our own community. Country people are not only spared the inconvenience of travel, but they are represented by local practitioners in front of local magistrates who know and understand their business.

Of course there’s a downside to this. Chances are the court reporter will be looking for a story the very day you’re convicted for .05 and the chances aren’t bad that the news will be on the paper’s front page the next day.

It is estimated that the new courthouse which is currently under construction will be completed by the end of 2022. As for the old courthouse, according to the Victorian government, a process will be established “to consider future use options in consultation with the community.”  It is a huge shame however that the old courthouse will lose its original function.  There are centuries-old buildings around the world which have been renovated and restored so they can continue to fulfil the purpose for which they were built.

Given the present reality however we now have to concentrate on what sort of business or agency could function within the old courthouse. I’ve heard suggestions that the building could become the home of the Bendigo Historical Society. Or perhaps it could be part of a much-needed extension of the Golden Dragon Museum.  Whatever the solution, I hope it retains the dignity and stature of our magnificent and much-loved courthouse.    

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