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History

More than 160 years of legal scholarship

Sydney Law School has a long history of providing the best, research-led legal education in Australia.

Inaugurated in 1855, Sydney Law School was one of the first three disciplines at the University of Sydney, alongside Arts and Medicine. The Law School commenced its work in 1859, but this work in the main was examining rather than teaching.

John Henry Challis, a merchant and landowner of Potts Point, NSW left a substantial bequest of his real and personal estate to the University. As a result of this bequest, eight University chairs, including those of Law, International Law and Jurisprudence, were founded, together with a number of specific lectureships, several of them in the Law School.

In 1890 Pitt Cobbett was appointed to the first Chair of Law and became the first Dean of the Faculty. This marked the commencement of the Sydney Law School as we know it today. After Pitt Cobbett's resignation in 1910, Mr. J. B. Peden (later Sir John Peden) was appointed to the Chair of Law and became Dean of the Faculty. A second chair was created after World War I, and A H Charteris, of the University of Glasgow, was appointed Challis Professor of International Law and Jurisprudence.

The earliest lectures in the Law School, before Pitt Cobbett's arrival from England, were given on the second or the top floor of an old building called Wentworth Court, which ran from Phillip to Elizabeth Streets on the site of the former Government Insurance Office. Soon after Professor Pitt Cobbett's arrival in 1890, the Law School, with its 14 students and teaching staff of five, four of whom were part-time lecturers, moved a few doors along to 173 Phillip Street.

In 1896 the Law School moved across Phillip Street to no. 174 Selbourne Chambers, on the site of the present Selbourne Chambers. It remained there until 1913, when it moved for a year to a 'cramped and noisy' upper floor in Martin Place, while Wigram Chambers (no. 167 Phillip Street) and Barristers' Court, both of which the University had recently purchased, were being converted into University Chambers for the Law School and tenants.

Sometime later, Barristers Court was resumed and demolished for the widening of Elizabeth Street, and in 1936 the University purchased all that remained of the original site. On this block, a 13-storey building was erected and opened in 1938. It was joined to the old Phillip Street Building, and it contained a well-appointed law library occupying three floors. The rest of the space was let. In 1939 there were 288 students and a teaching staff of 17 – two professors and full-time tutor (F C Hutley, later Mr Justice Hutley of the Supreme Court of NSW), and 14 part-time lecturers.

In the years immediately following World War II, there were some 1100 students in the Law School; the number fell to 650 by 1953. During the 1950s, three further chairs of law were created and another was added in 1969. In that year the Sydney Law School moved again, this time into a building of some 16 storeys bounded by Phillip, King and Elizabeth Streets. This was now known as the 'St James Campus'. The building contained nine lecture rooms, placed on two of the floors below street level which provided better air-conditioning control and reduced noise problems. Student amenities included a common room, games rooms and two squash courts. The library, which occupies four floors of the building, accommodated 450 readers, half in individual carrels.

In 2009, Sydney Law School relocated to the University of Sydney's Camperdown campus, occupying the New Law Building, an award-winning complex located on Eastern Avenue. A state-of-the-art complex for Law research and teaching, its major components include a moot court facility, law library, teaching spaces and forecourt.

In 2015, Sydney Law School officially resumed its CBD teaching activities in the University's new CBD building located at 133 Castlereagh Street, Sydney.

Sydney was the first Australian law school to admit women, and three of Australia’s six female high court judges graduated from Sydney Law School. We count among our alumni six Prime Ministers of Australia and four Chief Justices of the High Court of Australia.

We have a reputation for excellence which has been built over more than 160 years of teaching and research. We are committed to continuing to provide the best legal education for our students and leading the way in research by addressing key issues impacting both Australian and international law.

  • 1890–1910: Professor Pitt Cobbett
  • 1910–1942: Professor John Peden
  • 1942–1946: Professor James Williams
  • 1946–1947: Mr Clive Teece (Acting)
  • 1947–1973: Professor Keith Shatwell
  • 1974–1977: Professor David Benjafield
  • 1978–1979: Professor Dyson Heydon
  • 1980–1985: Professor John Mackinolty
  • 1986–1989: Professor Colin Phegan
  • 1990–1992: Professor James Crawford
  • 1992–1993: Associate Professor Alex Ziegert (Acting)
  • 1993–1994: Professor Colin Phegan (Acting)
  • 1994–1997: Professor David Weisbrot
  • 1998–1999: Associate Professor Ros Atherton (Acting)
  • 1999–2002: Professor Jeremy Webber
  • 2002–2007: Professor Ron McCallum
  • 2007–2012: Professor Gillian Triggs
  • 2012–2013: Professor Greg Tolhurst (Acting)
  • 2013–present: Professor Joellen Riley

Visit Sydney Law School and collect a copy of A Century Downtown: Sydney University Law School’s First Hundred Years.

The Law School Shift written by former Vice-Chancellor Sir Bruce Williams KBE (2009)

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