Supreme Court

Sir Francis Forbes

First Chief Justice of New South Wales
13 October 1823 - 1 July 1837


The first Chief Justice of New South Wales, Sir Francis Forbes, was appointed to oversee the reform of the administration of law and order in the colony of New South Wales, following the inquiry into the colony's affairs by Commissioner Bigge. Bigge's investigation began in 1819 following the far-reaching changes made in the Colony by Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Bigge was keen to grant greater jurisdiction to the local courts which had previously been administered from England.

The old legal tribunals of the convict days were superseded by the "New South Wales Act" of 1823 (4 Geo. IV c. 96) and by the "Charter of Justice" issued under it by the King on 13 October 1823 and proclaimed in Sydney on 17 May 1824.

The Charter established a Supreme Court of New South Wales with comprehensive jurisdiction; ordained that the court be held before "one Judge who shall be called the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales"; and appointed Francis Forbes to that office.

Forbes was born in 1784. Educated at Bermuda, when nineteen he went to England and entered Lincoln's Inn. Interruptions through journeyings home deferred his call to the Bar until 1812 and then became a Crown Law Officer at Bermuda. By 1816 Forbes sought advancement. The Colonial Office could offer him nothing better in the Caribbean, but invited him to be Chief Justice of Newfoundland. The invitation accepted, Forbes was sworn in at St. John's in July 1816. He married Amelia Sohia (nee Grant) in 1813.

In 1822 while convalescing in England his destiny was changed by the offer that he become foundation Judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Forbes accepted and helped to draft the Bill for 4 Geo. IV c. 96 before his departure. He arrived in Sydney in March 1824 and he opened the new court on 17 May. He was in a peculiar position of power. Not only was he sole judge, subject only to appellate powers vested in the Governor, but he was an official member of the Executive and Legislative Councils, and all colonial legislation had to bear his certificate that it was not repugnant to the laws of England.

John Stephen was appointed as first Puisne Judge in 1825 and James Dowling as a second Puisne in 1827. But even with that aid the bench could not cope with its work.

Forbes had been indisposed by serious bouts of illness on several occasions from 1826 but he worked on regardless until, in 1834, feeling that he could continue no further, he secured a year's leave to be spent in England. He retired in 1837 and was honoured with a Knighthood the same year. He died at his home "Leitrim Lodge", Newtown, on 8 November 1841.

As the colony's only judge, many of the judgments Forbes delivered established legal precedents which remain relevant today. He said that "It has been my incessant endeavour, ever since I have been in this Colony to raise the character of the Supreme Court in the opinion and confidence of the colonists; that I have strained hard to preserve its independence and to prevent its being supposed to be capable of being influenced".