Prior to 1962 there were no resident ACT barristers practising at the independent Bar. Court work was performed either by local solicitors or by barristers travelling from Sydney or Melbourne.
The ACT Supreme Court was a superior court of record having been created by the Commonwealth Act 1933.The right to practise in the Supreme Court and in the Court of Petty Sessions (predecessor of the Magistrates Court) was obtained by signing the High Court Roll.
In August 1962 from his experience of occasional country work, Mr Warren Keith Nicholl, who at that time was a Sydney barrister, had been attracted to the idea of practising in a country town, if it were feasible. Canberra in 1962 with a population of 63,000 was perfect, as Warren and his wife Mary discovered on their way to and from the snow, which of course as always, has been one of the major attractions of living in Canberra. Nicholl followed up his discovery with discussions with solicitors and other professional contacts that he had in Canberra and, on 20 August 1962, he opened the very first chambers in Canberra at 33 Ainslie Avenue, Canberra City, ACT.
Mr Robert Guy (Bill) Bailey, a partner in Davies Bailey and Cater (later Mallesons), also decided that he would cease to be a partner at the end of June 1962 and go to the Bar. Accordingly, he transferred from the NSW Roll of Solicitors to the NSW Roll of Barristers on 27 July 1962, there being at that stage no formal admissions of barristers in the ACT. He also set up chambers at Maitland House, 37 London Circuit, Canberra City, ACT.
Thus the beginnings of the independent Bar in the Australian Capital Territory were the result of a coincidence of quite independent decisions taken in 1962 by its co-founders, Warren K Nicholl and Robert G Bailey.
On 11 February 1963, Nicholl formally announced the formation of the Independent Bar in the Australian Capital Territory and was welcomed by, what was described in the Canberra Times as “the Full Bench of the ACT Supreme Court”. The judges who comprised the bench on that day were Dunphy, Joske and Eggleston JJ, all judges of the Commonwealth Industrial Court and additional judges of the ACT Supreme Court. The ACT had no resident Judge until the appointment of The Honourable Justice Russell Walter Fox on 7 August 1967.
The ACT Bar Association itself did not exist until the following year in 1964 when it was decided that it would be appropriate for there to be an organised body for the purpose of strength and unity in dealing with law reform issues and the Government.
At that stage the Bar had expanded by the sole addition of Warwick S Johnson so that it consisted of the trinity of Nicholl, Bailey and Johnson. In 1966 they were joined by John Joseph Anthony Kelly, who later became a Judge in 1980, Peter Sheils who was later granted Silk, Keppel Enderby QC who was later appointed a Judge of the NSW Supreme Court, John Norris and Ben Salmon both of whom later took silk.
By 1970, a Legal Practitioners Ordinance was being prepared. A Company Limited by guarantee, The Australian Capital Territory Bar Association was incorporated on 24 June 1970 (No. of Company C.L. 9353).
The new ordinance established the Law Society and provided for admission as a Barrister and Solicitor. However it required only those who practised as a solicitor to join the Law Society and be subject to its Conduct Rules. At that stage no separate recognition was given to barristers. Until 2006, barristers practising at the ACT Bar held practising certificates issued by the NSW Bar Association.
The ACT Bar Association made a successful application to the Australian Bar Association in 1973. The then President, A.S. Gillespie-Jones, had reported that he had represented the ACT Bar when the question of a ‘common’ set of rules for Counsel throughout Australia were discussed.
The ACT Bar Association applied in September 1978 for membership of the Law Council of Australia (“LCA”). An earlier application in February 1975 had been rejected by the Executive on the grounds that a substantial proportion of the ACT Bar were already represented through existing constituent bodies, i.e. the NSW Bar Association and the Law Society of the ACT.
On 1 February 1978, the then President, Sheils QC, wrote to the LCA President saying that it was the respectful suggestion of the Bar that unless all Bar Associations and Law Societies were admitted to membership of the LCA, then the claim on the LCA letterhead – that the LCA was “the federal council of Bar Associations and Law Societies” – was not warranted and misleading. He went on to say that the Articles of the Association provided that its members could not be members of the ACT Law Society and therefore could not be represented by that Society.
In June 1979, the LCA noted that it had received advice from the NSW Bar, NSW Law Society, Law Society of SA and LIV in favour of admission of the ACT Bar. Although the Law Society of Tasmania was not opposed to admission of the ACT Bar, it was troubled that ‘such’ a body could exercise the veto if admitted. The Queensland Law Society remained opposed to admission of the ACT Bar. The minutes of the 1979 AGM of the ACT Bar Association record that Sheils QC was greatly assisted by the then President of the ACT Law Society, David Harper, who supported the Bar’s application for membership of the LCA.
In December 1981, the LCA received a further application for admission from the ACT Bar Association. At the LCA Executive meeting held in 2 April 1982, it was unanimously resolved that the ACT Bar Association be admitted to the membership of the Law Council of Australia.
In 2006, the Legal Profession Act 2006 was enacted and recognised the ACT Bar as a regulatory authority. For the first time, barristers were required to be certified in the ACT. Initially the certificates were issued by the Law Society following a report from the Bar Council that the barrister was a fit and proper person to be issued with a certificate along with any conditions if required.
In May 2014 the ACT Bar Association became the licensing body and now issues its own Practising Certificates to Barristers in the ACT with effect from 1 July 2014.
The ACT Bar Association maintains a register of practising barristers in the ACT. Those holding Class “A” membership under its Constitution, being those who intend to practise in the ACT, have the right to vote at elections.
Governance is vested in the Bar Council comprising of nine members, including President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer and five Council Members. The Bar Association has also one employee, the CEO.