A look back at the life of the local courthouse

Solicitor Peter Gain spent a good four decades working inside the Gundagai courthouse.

Embedded deep in the tapestry of Gundagai’s history, the local courthouse has seen some colourful days.

Completed in 1859, the courthouse was one of the first stone buildings to be erected after the Great Flood of 1852. The interior, originally red cedar, was destroyed by fire in 1943 and rebuilt with mountain ash.

At the end of 1879, the courthouse was the site for the trial of Andrew George Scott, better known as bushranger ‘Captain Moonlite’. Moonlite and three of his companions were tried there after holding up Wantabdagery station.

Moonlite was later hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol in January, 1880.

Today, the courthouse holds local court for one day, once a month, and the registry is open for two days per week. It’s a far cry from the days when the courthouse was the hub for everything from criminal trials to civil marriage ceremonies.

The Independent recently sat down with solicitor Peter Gain, who is currently leading the charge to have the State Government rejuvenate the historic building, for a look back on the days when the courthouse was used not only much more frequently for administering justice, but offered the community myriad services not available today.

“When I first came here, we had quarter sessions which subsequently became the district court, three times a year. The sittings were of a week in duration, and we had no difficulty in keeping the work up to the court for at least four of the five days of each week,” Mr Gain said.

“What that did was allow people with criminal charges that required jury trial to appear before a jury of their peers.” 

The district court sittings ceased because of concerns of the judges with the security aspects of the court.

“And they were valid concerns,” Mr Gain said.

“We had a trial of a major criminal whose name I can’t recall, but whose nickname was ‘mad dog’. We had police and sheriff’s officers all over the place.

“That led judge Paul Flannery to recommend to the chief judge, Justice Reg Blanch, that criminal trials should no longer be held in Gundagai. I went in to bat about that and the compromise that we reached was that he’d give us a week of short matters – pleas and matters that didn’t require jury. That kept up for a year or so but was then phased out.”

The other court that sat regularly was what was then called petty sessions, which later became the local court.

“Every month we had a single day sitting on one fortnight, and a two-day sitting on the other fortnight; pleas and short matters on the first day, and the second day was for hearings,” Mr Gain said.

“We had the Clerk of Petty Sessions who was also the coroner for the district, and coronial inquiries would generally be conducted by the CPS, but more major matters would be conducted by a magistrate. The CPS was also the District Registrar of Births Deaths and Marriages, the Local Land Agent and the Clerk of Arraigns.

“We had the Workers Compensation Commission that sat in Gundagai on the average of about twice a year. The Local Land Board sat in the court as did the Valuation Board of Review, and the Mining Warden’s Court. 

“Where children were in custody, their bail matters were heard before the Clerk of Petty Sessions as a JP and a local JP. The last one I remember was Mark Hockey and Col Heaton, who sat on there, and they weren’t pushovers, they administered justice very well I thought.”

There was also a Justices Court which was convened of all justices of the peace in the district. 

“It was led by the Deputy Sheriff and it did the jury revision list, so people were taken off the list of jury persons or added to them. It was the local knowledge that attended to this,” Mr Gain said. 

“The Deputy Sheriff when I first came here was Charlie Gardiner, and in quarter sessions Charlie would welcome the judge. He’d sit on the bench with the judge to provide him with any answers that the judge needed about local conditions. The people took a real part in it.

“On Charlie’s death, his nephew Charles Hunt was appointed the Deputy Sheriff. I recently asked Charles if he’d ever been advised that he was no longer the Deputy Sheriff and he said, ‘no’, which is just typical of the impersonality of the administration of justice compared with what it used to be like.

“We also had the Government Insurance Office here, weekly, operating out of the courthouse. The Clerk of Petty Sessions was also the only civil marriage register.” 

Civil marriages were quite frequently conducted in the courthouse and, similar to a church, the parties would decorate.

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