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Colonial Cases

Northern Territory, Australia

The small town of Palmerston, in the Northern Territory of South Australia from the 1870s onwards, was another in a long list of frontier legal communities. It was a small community from which a city and a separate legal system eventually grew. A little over a century earlier, Sydney had begun in a similar way, as a government settlement among indigenous people, forcing those ancient peoples off lands they had owned for millennia and imposing a new version of life and legal order. Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart and Perth all went through a similar founding period, when legal problems quickly outstripped the judicial facilities available in tiny communities. The same applied throughout what eventually became New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and the United States. These were the settler colonies, and our concern here is with the very beginnings of their judicial systems and what the court records say about the people who lived there.

Palmerston was not Sydney. There were no convicts in the tiny town which became Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory of the Commonwealth of Australia. Communication was very much better almost from the start of Palmerston. The telegraph line which connected the Australian colonies to the world also connected Palmerston to Adelaide, its master until the territory was transferred into commonwealth control on 1911. Despite the instant communication of the telegraph, the vast size of the desert between the Adelaide and its satellite at one of the northern tips of Australia meant that the judicial system in Palmerston was remote from superior judicial and administrative supervision, as was so common in frontier legal communities. In a practical sense, the local judges were largely on their own. The Supreme Court of South Australia rarely visited on circuit.

Palmerston had similar legal issues to other frontier communities concerning the indigenous people who had been pushed aside so aggressively. By the 1870s, most of these issues had been settled as matters of law. It was unequivocally murder for one person to kill another intentionally, subject to the defences of provocation and self-defence. That basic law applied regardless of the racial mix concerned. The killing of one Aboriginal person by another was subject to English law in theory. However, the practice remained as it was in Brisbane or Perth or Hobart. What happened without European witnesses was very unlikely to be drawn to the courts' attention. Indigenous peoples in remote locations were left alone until the Europeans decided that they needed their land.

Palmerston was different from other Australian proto-capitals in one important way, which is very evident from reading its earliest court records. It was very close to Asia, and its population showed that. The records of the small courts demonstrate this very clearly. The words "Malay," "Arab," "Chinese" and "coolie" appear frequently in the newspaper accounts of the conduct of the small town's courts. The gross kidnapping and maltreatment of Pacific islanders to work in Queensland influenced the treatment of Asian coolies in and around Palmerston. The Northern Territory's coolies were from China and there was some concern about their maltreatment.

This, then, was another frontier legal community, which had to deal with sometimes profound legal issues in tiny courts. But, like other similar communities, it was of its own time and place, facing familiar issues in a new set of circumstances.

The following court reports are taken from the Trove collection of newspapers, compiled by the National Library of Australia. The Northern Territory Times and Gazette provided very thorough reports of the proceedings of the Palmerston courts. These were reports by journalists, not trained court reporters, and they were chosen to reflect the interests of those reporters and presumably their readers. These are not "objective" reports then. Nor, though, were formal law reports entirely complete. Law reporters also wrote for their own particular readers, reporting the official words said in court and said for the restricted official purposes of the law. Newspaper reporters are more likely to record a gasp from an audience, and much more likely to comment on the broader contextual issues which official law discards as irrelevant to the strict legal issues in question. (See for example, Connor v. Clarkson, 1874.) Neither form of reporting tells the "whole" story. The commentary included satire in the so called Moonta Herald and Northern Territory Gazette.

The first of these cases went online in June 2017.

Bruce Kercher.

 

Coronial Inquests, NT

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Published by Centre for Comparative Law, History and Governance at Macquarie Law School