Celebrating 150 years of Auckland’s “Rip van Winkle” Courthouse

Just over 150 years ago, on 5 February 1868, the first civil court sittings were held in the Auckland High Court.

While this distinctive and imposing neo-Gothic Revival building was never officially opened, the laying of the Courthouse’s foundation stone three years earlier, on the Prince of Wales’ birthday on 9 November 1865, was a suitably grand occasion. The day’s festivities included a procession, witnessed by 1000 spectators, with a military band leading the legal profession – suitably attired in their wigs and gowns – to the new site. After the ceremony, the luncheon carried on throughout the afternoon, and 34 toasts were proposed to the Chief Justice, legal profession, the building’s English-born architect Edward Rumsey, and other luminaries (Evans 1979, 107).

In many respects, the High Court’s exterior and interior have been remarkably unchanged across its history (despite undergoing extensions), and particularly so its No 1 Courtroom. Indeed, in 1993, Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum singled out the No. 1 Courtroom as a particular exemplar of the antiquated state of courthouse design in New Zealand. The Courthouse had only recently been reopened at the time, having been closed for restoration works and additions since 1984, and the Court has relocated to the site of a former ice cream factory for nearly ten years. Sir Thomas praised the “high standard” of the Courtroom’s “faithful and meticulous restoration”, noting that it showed “remarkably little change from what was provided when the building was first erected”. Such lack of modernisation was however, in Sir Thomas’ opinion, not something to be celebrated - he went on wryly to observe that:

“A Rip van Winkle barrister of the Victorian era, awakening after a 100 year sleep, would be at home and immediately be able to function in the courtroom, and apart from a mild query as to what the microphones were, and some wonderment that judges had become so polite, might take time to realise that a century had passed him by.” (LawTalk 1993, 4)

Sir Thomas’ comments were made 25 years ago, but in many respects they still ring true today. The No. 1 Courtroom and the Courthouse itself continue to provide New Zealanders with a wellpreserved reminder of the Victorian era approach towards courthouse design – a time when grand courthouses in the colony’s growing cities were increasingly built to represent the majesty and permanence of the law (with Wellington’s Supreme Court and the Dunedin Law Courts providing two other examples). While the building itself may be largely unchanged, we can use the opportunity of the Sesquicentennial celebrations to reflect upon a few of the broader changes affecting the Court that have taken place over that period.

First, the Courthouse’s surrounding physical environment has changed beyond recognition. Formerly the site of a Māori pā (Te Reuroa), the Courthouse land and wider surrounds were sold by Ngāti Whātua to Governor Hobson in 1840. The Courthouse was built on an isolated hilltop from 1865 and acted as a landmark to locals. Choosing such a relatively remote site was a deliberate planning decision, as Auckland’s first Courthouse in Queen Street, built in 1842, was from the outset considered a “filthy and feculent hovel”, located beside a gaol, the public gallows, exercise yard and the stocks (McLennan 2004, 5). When the Superintendent laid the foundation stone for the new Auckland High Court on Waterloo Quadrant on 17 November 1865, he told the assembled crowd that he hoped that they would “receive pure justice and purer air” from this new building than that received from the Queen Street Court.

Nineteenth century Auckland lawyers subsequently complained about the new Court’s relative distance from the hub of Auckland’s commercial and legal district, as the Land Transfer Office, Deeds Office, Police and Magistrate’s Courts and city law firms were all closely situated in Queen, Shortland, Wyndham and High Streets and Vulcan Lane (Stone 2001, 247). This is not a complaint that contemporary Auckland lawyers would be likely to make!

Over time, and as the population of Auckland continued to grow, and its position as a major commercial centre was cemented, the High Court building has been joined and towered over by a number of tall CBD buildings. While we might still hope that “pure justice” is being dispensed within the Courthouse, the “purer air” component is arguably long gone.

The demographic composition of the Court’s users has certainly changed. This is most apparent in relation to the Court’s professional users. The High Court’s nineteenth century proceedings were dominated by men. Until nearly 1900, Auckland lawyers and their support staff were all men (Stone 2001, 248). In 1906, Auckland’s first woman solicitor, Eliza Ellen Melville, was admitted before Justice Edwards in the High Court chambers, followed the next year by the admission of Geraldine Hemus. It then took another eight decades, however, before the first woman master of the High Court (Anne Gambrill) was appointed in 1987. Dame Sylvia Cartwright, who in 1993 was the first woman appointed to the High Court, was a resident High Court Judge based in Auckland.

By 2017, women comprised nine of the 27 Judges and Associate Judges based in the Auckland High Court. The High Court has also been increasingly staffed by professionals drawn from a wider cross-section of Auckland’s multicultural population, although this too has been a very gradual development, with former judge Ken Mason appointed as New Zealand’s first Māori judge in 1970 and Sir Edward Durie appointed as the first Māori High Court Judge to the High Court in 1998. Justice Joe Williams, the first Māori judge appointed to the Court of Appeal in 2017, was appointed to the High Court (and was resident in the Auckland High Court) in 2008.

Finally, the High Court’s artwork and adornment have in recent times better represented the interests of tangata whenua. Prominent Māori leaders were represented on the building from the outset. In 1866, architect Rumsey commissioned German sculptor Anton Teutenberg to produce the distinctive stone and wooden heads, gargoyles and other carvings that still adorn the Courthouse’s exteriors and interiors. Teutenberg’s selection of notable personnel included British royalty (Queen Victoria and Prince Albert), prominent British jurists Lord Westbury and Lord Chief Justice Campbell, Socrates, and also Māori leaders, including Ngāpuhi chief Hōne Heke and (possibly) Ngāti Whātua chief Paora Tūhaere. This latter inclusion can only be interpreted as a token gesture, however, in light of the Crown’s ongoing efforts to deprive Māori of their sovereignty and land rights at that time. While the building’s architecture continues to overwhelmingly reflect European design traditions, more recent artwork featured in and around the High Court better reflects tangata whenua, including the sculptures and artworks by Fred Graham, Jacob Scott and Claudia Pond Eyley.

A Rip van Winkle barrister would probably still feel at home in the No. 1 Courtroom in the Auckland High Court today, 150 years after it first opened. Although we might appreciate such Victorian-style courthouses for their heritage aesthetics (with the recently reopened Dunedin Law Courts providing another such example), they were designed for a different era, to make a strong and intimidating statement about the power and majesty of Pākehā law. Their interior design is particularly at odds with contemporary courtroom design ideals, which advocate the importance of accessibility and flexibility for all courtroom users. Sir Thomas, a strong and influential advocate of courthouse modernisation, might well remind us that, amid the celebration, we also need to stay focused on modernising our courtrooms to meet twenty-first century standards, rather than venerating Victorian era ideals. 

References “Courtroom design: much room for improvement says Chief Justice”, LawTalk 397, 26 July 1993, 4. Evans, Enid, “The Supreme Court House, Auckland”, in Historic Buildings of New Zealand: North Island, edited by Frances Porter, Auckland: Methuen, 1979, 106-111. McLennan, Catriona, Auckland District Law Society: Celebrating the First 125 Years, Auckland: Auckland District Law Society, 2004. Shaw, Peter, A History of New Zealand Architecture, 3rd ed., Auckland: Hodder Moa Becket, 2003. Stone, R.C.J. “An Anatomy of the Practice of Law in Nineteenth-Century Auckland”, in The Shaping of History: Essays from The New Zealand Journal of History, Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2001, 245-256.

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