As early as February 1851, just two months after the arrival of the Canterbury Association’s first ships, Canterbury’s Founder, John Robert Godley, swore in Christchurch’s first Magistrates. One of those was Edward Ward, who wrote in his journal about the times he took his place on ‘…the bench…’ to help solve our settler’s earliest legal disputes. It is most likely that these first cases were held at the Lyttelton Immigration Barracks, after which the first real courthouse was eventually built beside the Lyttelton Gaol.
The first court case held in Christchurch took place upstairs in the Land Office (situated on Oxford Terrace, opposite to the now demolished Rydges Hotel) on 15th May 1852. It was an assault case between two employees of the Deans’ farm at Riccarton. Two months later, in Market Place (Victoria Square), Christchurch’s first police station was built – the first structure erected inside the square. Built by Isaac Luck (partner and brother-in-law of architect Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort), it included cells and accommodation for the lone jailer. Another site for these early court sessions was at St Michael and All Angels, then known as Christ’s Church.
When the Christchurch City Council formed in March 1862, they set up their first offices at the old Land Office, sharing the facility with those of the law system. This set up with the C.C.C. soon proved unsuitable as the number of cases increased with the city’s growing population and some hearings attracted huge public attention. In 1864, the Canterbury Provincial Council sourced land for a larger courthouse, choosing the land that sat opposite them on Armagh Street.
A long, single-story, weatherboard building was designed by Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort and Maxwell Bury. The separate Judge’s Chamber from this era survived well into the 1980’s. Canterbury’s first Law Library was also set up here, made up from the books brought over on the Canterbury Association ships. But even this new building proved to be too small so the Supreme Court was to have its own building. The foundation stone was laid on 15th January, 1869 and this project was completed in 1874. The Magistrate Court was to get a new building too, opening on 2nd August, 1879 without even a mention in the city’s newspapers. This heritage gem was lost to the 2011 quakes.
Even in the face of great public protest, the grand Gothic designed Supreme Court’s demolition was started in 1973 and finished in 1981. A new six-story courthouse was designed by Gordon Cullivan and built by C. Lund & Co, and construction started in March, 1986. It was officially opened on 23rd June, 1989.
In what is New Zealand’s biggest multi-agency government project to date, Christchurch’s law system will be part of a new precinct (on the corner of Tuam and Durham Streets) that will also house the Ministry of Justice, New Zealand Police, New Zealand Fire Service, Department of Corrections, St John and Canterbury Civil Defence, among others and is due to be operational in 2017.
*Image courtesy of the Christchurch Public Library – http://christchurchcitylibraries.com – File Reference CCL Photo CD 9, IMG0094 *