History of the Adelaide Law School

History of the Adelaide Law SchoolThe University of Adelaide is one of a small group of institutions which pioneered the teaching of law in the English tradition as a university discipline in the nineteenth century. When legal studies began on the North Terrace campus in April 1883 there was only one other fully fledged Law School in Australia. This was at the University of Melbourne where law teaching began in the 1850’s. Melbourne’s Faculty of Law, however, was not established until 1873.

The University of Sydney had established a law faculty in 1855. That University undertook examining for degrees, including the LL.D. for many years. But it was not until 1890, as a Sydney University commemorative volume affirms, that the “Law School came into being” and its first law professor was appointed. In contrast, Adelaide moved at once to provide for the teaching of undergraduates.

A Bachelor of Laws degree was instituted. Non-degree students were also permitted to undertake legal studies as a requirement for admission to the local bar. One full-time teacher was appointed to take charge of legal education. With this, Adelaide became the second fully operational Law School in Australia; after Melbourne. Within 12 months, the University’s Chancellor and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Samuel Way, commented on its progress to William Hearn, the Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Melbourne. As he wrote: “Our new Law School is going on very well.”

In many ways, it was a bold, innovative decision to establish a Law School at the University of Adelaide in 1883. There were few models to guide Way and the others who worked with him to make the teaching of English style law a university discipline in South Australia. There were still firm adherents to the traditional view that universities were not appropriate places for the study of the common law. In the year that the Law School opened the noted English jurist, Sir Frederick Pollock, remarked, more in sorrow than in anger, that the systematic study of English law was followed by few and scorned by others. Undeterred, in Adelaide, as in some other parts of the then British Empire, members of the legal profession and local educators joined together to bring legal studies into universities. In New Zealand, university based legal studies had begun at Christchurch and Otago in the 1870’s.

Following continental tradition, law was firmly established as a discipline in universities in Canada’s province of Quebec, where French law predominated. It was not until October 1883, however, that the first students were admitted to a university Law School in a common law jurisdiction in Canada. This was at Dalhousie Law School in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Like most of its counterparts, even in larger richer places, Australia’s second Law School was a small establishment for many years. Legal education was maintained as a co-operative enterprise between one full-time teacher and practising members of the legal profession from 1883 through to 1950. On at least five occasions in this period the Adelaide Law School was able to maintain its programmes only by relying upon members of the legal profession to take responsibility for teaching all its courses. At one of these periods, during and after the first world war, the profession was in sole charge of Law School affairs and teaching for more than four years.

The earliest classes were given in the rooms of university staff members in the Mitchell building. The School stayed there for more than 75 years. In time, a small suite of rooms on the first floor, including a lecture room, professor’s study and a high ceilinged library provided the centre for legal studies for generations of law students. A poorly lighted stairway overshadowed by a stained glass window was the chief method of access.

By the late 1950’s it was clear that the existing rooms provided for the Law School would not cope much longer with the growing number of students and planned full-time staff. For a time there was vigorous debate on where the School should be located. For traditional and other reasons some favoured the Law School taking over more of the Mitchell building. Others, including the University administration, sought to have the Law School transferred to elsewhere on the campus. The debate was relatively short but not without touches of acrimony. In the face of University expansion, in late 1959 the Law School was moved to cramped and generally unsatisfactory quarters in a new extension erected at the rear of the Barr Smith Library.

Despite the heavy cost of transferring the library and making other arrangements this was a temporary expedient only, pending the completion of what was planned to be law’s permanent quarters in the soon to be completed Napier complex. In 1964 the Law School moved there. By then, and probably understandably, the administrators had faltered in making effective provision for the unprecedented expansion of the University. They agreed that a new, separate building for the Law School should be built on the eastern extremity of the campus on North Terrace. The Ligertwood Building was opened in 1967 to house the Law School. It provided some of the best library facilities for law students in Australia and a special Moot Court.

The departure of the Adelaide Law School from the Mitchell building was more than a move to a new physical location. It marked the passing of 75 years in which the total number of students seldom exceeded 100. “Large” classes of 30 or 40 were replaced by groups of 100 in the 60’s and almost 200 in the 70’s as the student population climbed. In 1949 the full-time teaching complement consisted of one person, Arthur Lang Campbell. By 1960 there were eight full-time teachers on the staff. Today there are 38 members of staff.

Former students are to be found in many fields throughout Australia and practise law all over the world in places as far removed from each other as London, Hong Kong, and Canada’s Yukon Territory. Universities elsewhere in Australia, Britain, Canada, Hong Kong and the United States have full-time, permanent staff members who received their undergraduate training at Adelaide.

While teaching has been the main activity of the Adelaide Law School legal scholarship has also been nurtured. Members of the full-time staff of the School, part-time teachers and graduates have contributed to this through the years. John Salmond, for example, who was professor from 1897-1905, and his immediate successors, Jethro Brown and Coleman Phillipson, were scholars of international repute. A special collection of books and other publications in the Law Library evidences the considerable body of wide ranging contributions made to legal writing by full-time members of the staff.

Part-time teachers and graduates, too, have been responsible for many publications, books, articles and periodicals and not least in the judgments they have delivered in superior courts. The Adelaide Law School’s staff and graduates have also contributed to law reform activities dating back at least to the beginning of the twentieth century. Since then, and notably in recent times, members of the full-time teaching staff and graduates have been active members of bodies such as the Australian Law Reform Commission and the South Australian Law Reform Committee.

The hub of much of the legal research carried on in South Australia in the past 100 years has been the University’s Law Library. In the past 25 years, particularly under the guidance of librarians Gwenda Sargeant (later Fischer) and then Dick Finlay, it has grown from a relatively small collection to the most significant body of legal materials in the State. Over the years it has received some important benefactions, including gifts from the University’s first Registrar, William Barlow, Sir Josiah Symon and a large bequest from one of its most devoted part-time teachers for many years, Edward Warner Benham. The Library is now designated the Salmond Library.

Today, Adelaide is one of Australia’s premier Law Schools. The aspirations which Way and others espoused for legal education in South Australia have now been emulated and developed in these and other places. In retrospect, however, without the strength of purpose and dedication of the nineteenth century pioneers who sought to develop legal education within Universities in Australia and elsewhere it is difficult to believe that Adelaide and other Law Schools would have found the measure of acceptance they have achieved in the second half of the twentieth century. Without the active collaboration of the practising legal profession and university educators, over a period of many years, some Law Schools, including Adelaide, could not have survived, at least in terms of providing an unbroken record of service to legal education for a century or more.

By the same token, the establishment and growth of university based legal education began with an acknowledgment that there were essential differences between this and the system of legal training which preceded it. As Way himself indicated in the discussions on the proposal to found the Adelaide Law School, Universities aimed to help provide the broader educational experiences which he and others considered were necessary to provide an adequate training in the law. Down the years, some of Australia’s most noted law graduates have echoed these sentiments, emphasising in the process how adequate education in the law requires more than simply the development of technical expertise.

For example, as the former Chief Justice of Australia, Sir John Latham, once affirmed, basic technical training in the law does not suffice to prepare lawyers for their service to the community. Lawyers must, so he argued, also have “cultural equipment and a sense of social responsibility”. In similar vein, the late Sir Robert Menzies once declared that a Law School exists not only to teach municipal law but “it endeavours to lay a foundation upon which can be based a true conception of jurisprudence as a social force.” The history of Adelaide Law School suggests that in its teaching and research and in the ongoing activities of its former students it has striven towards such goals.

Adapted from Law on North Terrace (1883 – 1983) by
Alex Castles, Andrew Ligertwood, and Peter Kelly.

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