Supreme Court (former Local and Insolvency Court)

Supreme Court (former Local and Insolvency Court)

From 1837 until 1850 the proceedings of the Supreme Court of South Australia were held in a variety of temporary premises around Adelaide (see also Royal Victoria Theatre). The first purpose-built Supreme Court was the present Magistrates Court that stands nearby, across King William Street.

The present Supreme Court building was not designed as such, but as a Local and Insolvency Court. Plans for this court house were begun when the government announced in 1865 that a new General Post Office would be built. The site for this included the 1851 Post Office, and the Police, Local and Insolvency Courts. Plans were drawn up to house these courts on Town Acre 408 at the south-west corner of King William Street and Victoria Square.

The Police Court building on King William Street was completed first, then the Local and Insolvency Court building, with an imposing facade facing Victoria Square.

Robert George Thomas was probably the architect. He was appointed second in charge of the Department of Engineer and Architect in 1866, and was colonial architect from 1868 to 1870. George Thomas Light may also have had some role in the designs, in relation to the original plans of 1865. These included a third court (which was never built) to the south, beyond the main stairway.

There were the usual construction delays over poor-quality workmanship and other squabbles between the government and contractors. Initially all the foundation walls were constructed “out of a square line”. Work started in 1866 and was completed in 1869.

Brown and Thompson won the tender to construct the superstructure in cut-stone. These were busy years for them as they also built the new General Post Office. The main facades of the court are Tea Tree Gully sandstone (once described as Glen Ewin freestone) as they owned McEwin’s quarry at Tea Tree Gully. The more modest south and west elevations were of bluestone.

Even during construction the new building drew high praise for its imposing Palladian-style facade to Victoria Square. The judges, who were cramped and unhappy in the existing Supreme Court building, in the words of R.M. Hague became “consumed with envy, and decided they would much prefer it to the one they were occupying”. They soon had their way, and during 1868 the new building was extended and adapted to suit their Honours and court officers. One such major extension was the addition of a colonnaded arcade at the rear.

Yet the judges were not satisfied and decided that the building would not be suitable until renovations were completed. In the meantime, from 1869 it was occupied by the Local and Insolvency Court. In1873 the Supreme Court and the Local and Insolvency Court moved across King William Street, exchanging buildings.

Perhaps the most accomplished and best known of South Australia’s chief justices was Sir Samuel Way, who presided over the Supreme Court from 1876 until his death in 1916. During his term minor changes were made to the building, such as the addition of handsome wrought- iron gates in 1875. The problem of three judges for only two courts was never properly resolved because an additional courtroom was built in 1919 and a fourth judge was appointed in the same year.

Many of the later internal alterations and additional buildings were made in an equally unsuccessful attempt to cope with the increased number of judges and the dramatic increases in court business and staff, especially during the 1920s and 1950s. The pressure was finally eased by the creation of the Sir Samuel Way Law Courts, which were opened in 1983.

Fortunately, most of the original layout and many of the historical features within the building have survived, or are being restored, and the facades are almost intact.


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The Supreme Court remains one of the most impressive of Adelaide’s public buildings, in keeping with its function. It has played a dominant role in the expansion and development of the legal system, not only in housing courts but also as a legal library, the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths, and the probate office. This grand structure is a landmark on Victoria Square and forms part of the state’s most important group of law buildings in a distinct precinct at the southern and south-western margins of the square.

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Images of Supreme Court (former Local and Insolvency Court)

  • Supreme Court, 2014
William McMinn, Edward Woods
Building materials
Render, Stucco, Stone, Bluestone
Architectural styles
2 Victorian Period (c. 1840–c. 1890), 2.9 Italianate
1867 - 1868
Architecture and design features
Robert Thomas, William McMinn, Corinthian, spandrel, pediment, balustrade
Engineering features
Victoria Square- Tarndanyangga
Council Ward
Alternative Addresses
Town Acre
Planning Zone or Policy Area
Original owners
Government of South Australia
Original occupant
Later occupant/s
Purposes and use
Civic, Court
AS2482 classification
14560 - Law Courts
Public Access
Opening hours only
State Heritage ID
ACC Reference No.
DPTI Heritage No.
Certificate of Title No.
CR 5760/599 T105101 T408
NTSA file exists
Heritage Status
State Heritage listed
State heritage listing
State Heritage listed
Date of State heritage listing
Local heritage listing
Date of Local heritage listing
NTSA listing
NTSA classified
Date of NTSA listing
Section 23 (4) crtiteria
Risk status
Historic Themes
5.2 State Government
5.2.2 Law and Police
Australian Curriculum references
Year 5: The Australian Colonies


  • Hague, R.M., History of the law in South Australia, 1837-1867 (typescript), 1936, (MLSA); Marsden, S., 'The history and cultural significance of the Supreme Court building, Victoria Square, Adelaide' in Danvers Architects, Supreme Court conservation study report, Adelaide,
  • 1987; SA Department of Housing and Construction, Historical documents and drawings relating to the Supreme Court.

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