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Legal Precinct

Melbourne's legal precinct is primarily the area bounded by Collins, William, Lonsdale and Queen streets, in or near which the legal profession, courts and government offices associated with the legal system are concentrated.

From 1843 the Supreme Court of Victoria was located on the north-west corner of Russell and La Trobe streets, next to the (Old) Melbourne Gaol and opposite the Police Barracks. From 1857 the County Court occupied premises fronting Swanston Street, in the same block. But Melbourne's commercial and mercantile interests, banking, insurance, stockbroking and pastoral concerns established themselves near the wharves and railway stations, at the western end of town, and the lawyers followed them there.

In 1863 a Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly recommended that new premises should be built for the Supreme Court on the site of the City Corporation's Western Market. Evidence had been given to the Committee that the court's position on the eastern hill was inconvenient as 'the quarter where lawyers most do congregate' was in Collins Street, opposite the market. In the end, however, a new Law Courts building was erected at the south-east corner of William and Lonsdale streets, from 1884 accommodating both the Supreme and the County courts, and also the Court of General Sessions and the Court of Insolvency.

For many years, the portion of Little Bourke Street between William and Queen streets was known as Law Courts Place and the corresponding portion of Little Collins Street as Chancery Lane. Long before 1884 most firms of city solicitors had their offices in the precinct, though now they are more widely scattered. Most barristers had chambers in old Temple Court, running from Collins Street to Chancery Lane, or subsequently in Selborne Chambers, constructed in 1881, between Chancery Lane and Bourke Street. In 1961 a later generation of barristers moved to Owen Dixon Chambers in William Street, and their successors have spread to other buildings nearby. Many of them can be seen, wigged and gowned, walking to or from the courts - a visible reminder that the legal system is in operation.

The Titles Office (now the Land Registry), State Revenue Offices, the Crown Law Offices (now located near Parliament House), and some government tribunals were established nearby. Increased legal business led the government to erect a new County Court building in William Street in 1969 (replaced in 2002 by a building on the diagonally opposite corner); and in 1994 to move the Magistrates' Court from the old Supreme Court site to a new building in Lonsdale Street. The Melbourne Children's Court now has its own building in Little Lonsdale Street behind the County Court.

Since Federation the Commonwealth of Australia has established various courts in Melbourne. From 1903 to 1980 the High Court of Australia was located in Law Courts Place, next to the Supreme Court. The Family Court opened in 1975, the Federal Court in 1976, and the Federal Magistrates' Court in 1999. All are now housed in a Commonwealth building on the south-west corner of William and La Trobe streets.

Peter Balmford