One of the main reasons for Federation was the need for an appeal court for the courts of the Colonies. Appeals had to go to the British Privy Council and were expensive.
Once the Constitution came into force, the Commonwealth Parliament still had to pass legislation to structure the High Court. The Commonwealth Government had a difficult time completing this task. A number of Parliamentarians were concerned about the cost involved in setting and running a High Court. The new Commonwealth Government did not have much funding. Other Parliamentarians argued that our system of government under the Constitution would not be complete without a High Court.
It took more than two years for legislation to pass the Parliament to constitute the High Court.
The High Court came into being on 25 August 1903, when the Judiciary Bill was given the Royal Assent by Governor-General Lord Tennyson. The first sitting of the High Court took place in the Banco Court of the Supreme Court building in Melbourne on 6 October 1903.
The appointment of the first three Justices of the High Court was a matter for the Federal Government Cabinet. Attorney-General Alfred Deakin wanted Sir Samuel Griffith as Chief Justice. He had admired his patient and untiring handiwork in the drafting of first the Constitution. He was able to express the wishes of the delegates at the 1891 Convention into a clearly written Constitution. Prime Minister Edmund Barton had already promised another judicial seat to the Leader of the Government in the difficult Senate, Richard O’Connor. That left one more seat to be chosen and Barton had eyes on it for himself. Deakin was determined to resign over this. But in the end Barton won out and was appointed as the third Justice. Deakin became the Prime Minister, Australia’s second.
The High Court almost went on strike in 1905 over the payment of their travelling and other expenses incurred as a result of the circuit court activity. By this time the Free-traders were in Government. Much of the angst during this episode occurred between the Chief Justice Samuel Griffith and Attorney-General Josiah Symons. He believed that the expense of the circuit court was too high.
The High Court had been given independence through the Judiciary Act. And the first Justices believed that the judicial system in Australia should include a High Court that travelled to the people.
This would ensure that justice was available to all the people and not just to those who could afford to travel to the Court. The Court continues to sit around Australia.