Ceremonial First Sitting of Supreme Court in Shepparton

Kaz Gurney, Dr Matthew Collins QC, Uncle Bobby Nicholls

Kaz Gurney addressing Supreme Court of Victoria. Goulburn Valley CLC Manager & Principal Lawyer. Kaz Gurney; Victorian Bar President, Dr Matthew Collins QC; Elder Uncle Bobby Nicholls. Photos: Sejal Amin

On 19 May 2018 our Manager & Principal Lawyer, Kaz Gurney, spoke at the ceremonial first sitting of the Supreme Court of Victoria at the new Shepparton Courts. Kaz addressed Chief Justice Ferguson, Justices Osborn and Beach, other members of the Judiciary, local Elder Uncle Bobby Nicholls and Victorian Bar President, Dr Matt Collins QC.

Kaz noted that the opening of the new court building recognised Shepparton’s importance as one of the largest regional cities in Victoria. Below is her full address to the court.

May it please the Court.

I appear on behalf of the members of the Goulburn Valley Legal Association, which is affiliated with the Law Institute of Victoria, and respectfully extend our welcome to Your Honours on the occasion of your first sitting in this wonderful new and very impressive Court complex.

Before continuing, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and pay my respects to their Elders, past and present. I particularly acknowledge and give my respect to Uncle Bobby and any other Aboriginal people here today.

Today’s Ceremonial Sitting of the Court lends a special gravitas to the occasion of Your Honours’ first presence in this building and is greatly appreciated. My learned friend [Dr Matt Collins QC] has spoken about some of the features of the complex and also touched on the history of the courts here. I might begin by going a little further back in time… In fact, to the beginning of settlement of what is now known as Shepparton.

The earliest white settlers here were squatters. They found the fertile flats beside the Broken and Goulburn (Kaiela) Rivers and selected large tracts of land on which to run sheep and cattle. Farmers and then gold seekers followed and the land was slowly transferred from peppercorn leases to tenements. It is important, I think, as we look at the new Court complex – its design and its environs – to reflect on the impact that this white settlement had on the Aboriginal peoples who had occupied the land before them for tens of thousands of years.

In my research reading for today, I came across a small book published in 1938 (price 2/6, The History of Shepparton 1838-1938) commissioned by the Council and authored by then Councillor CWS James. It makes mention of the killing of a group of six early travellers by Aboriginal people but makes no other references at all to the presence of Aboriginal people or what became of them.

Shepparton is the home of the Koori Courts of Victoria and the 15th anniversary of its establishment was only recently celebrated. The participation of Elders is not only an integral part of the Courts’ operation, but also a small but important step towards reconciliation with their people. It is consequently very fitting that this building is in such harmony with the riparian environment of the sacred Kaiela, and therefore with the essence of local Aboriginal culture.

The first building in Shepparton was McGuire’s punt house built in 1853 on the eastern bank of the Kaiela, less than 150 metres north of the present 1930’s Court.  This is important to our story as will become clear. The new settlement was actually known as McGuire’s Punt in official documents until 1870, when it was renamed Shepparton after Sherbourne Sheppard, an influential squatter of the time.

The second building here was a hotel across the road from today’s 1930’s Court, and allegedly a den of iniquity when rum was still a common currency.

The third was a bark and slab police station constructed in 1854 on the current site next door.

Shepparton’s early days were marked by crime and corruption, and the local Aboriginal peoples were soon subjugated and dispossessed of their traditional homes by those prosecuting a relentless demand for grazing land. Prisoners were at first taken to Beechworth by dray to be tried until Benalla became District HQ for the Shepparton Division. The first Court of Petty Sessions was established in a brick room at the rear of the punt house in 1875. This room also served as a public hall, dance theatre and church for the settlement.

The first purpose-built court house was erected on the site of the present 1930’s Court and opened in 1884. Its inadequacy quickly became clear as Shepparton grew rapidly under the influence of closer settlement for irrigation, but it wasn’t until 28 August 1939 that the art deco building designed by chief architect of the Public Works Department, Percy Everett, was opened for business.

My learned friend has already mentioned that this was just six days before England, and therefore also Australia, entered a second world war against Germany, ending the fervent wishes still being expressed in the Shepparton Advertiser of the day for ‘peace in our time’.

Much of this new building’s availability to the Magistrate was, of course, ceded to the County and Supreme Courts for their sittings, and a number of highly publicised matters were trialled there before this Honourable Court over the years. On each occasion, the Magistrate had again to make do with the punt house (still there) and other small public buildings such as the Masonic Lodge and Scout hall as you have already heard.

This situation continued until the Magistrates’ Court was accommodated in the ‘temporary’ erection on High Street opened by Attorney-General Jim Kennan in 1991, but now almost completely demolished; it was supposed to be an interim facility for just 10 years.

Then legal luminaries in Shepparton, the nucleus of the Goulburn Valley Legal Association, such as David Farram (Magistrate), Suzanna Sheed (MP), Peter Riordan (Hon. Mr Justice) and Brian Birrell (still practising), and those who have followed them continued to agitate for a court house worthy of serving the entire north-east of the state for the next 25 years or so. The current court complex is a credit to Government; its designers, architects and builders; and to the many members of the judiciary, Court Services Victoria staff and consultants who contributed to its final form today. It is one of which the community can be justly proud.

This building embodies world’s best practice. It makes specific and detailed provisions that respect and address the needs of victims of family violence, especially women and children. On completion of Stage II it will provide them with safe spaces while awaiting their hearing and during proceedings. It will accommodate and make referrals to a range of supportive services for affected family members and perpetrators. And it will do so in an environment that is bright, light and calming.

Those other features that we all know have been needed for so long are also present: the separation of adult and children’s matters; the strong sense of security giving victims and witnesses great reassurance (something definitely missing in the old place); multiple interview rooms where lawyers and support workers can have confidential discussions with their clients; and facilities for judiciary and staff that are actually conducive to them performing their work (the importance of this has been amply demonstrated by recent very sad events). It meets access to justice principles.

Magistrate Farram expressed his view to me on Friday that ‘the external appearance is good public architecture; the design is a work of art internally; the whole building is light and open; and it has an affiliation with the river and Indigenous culture in spades.’

I think most everyone agrees.

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