Clerks of Courts: Power and Change in the Victorian Magistrates' Courts, 1948 - 1989

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Wade, Elizabeth Anne (2021) Clerks of Courts: Power and Change in the Victorian Magistrates' Courts, 1948 - 1989. PhD thesis, Victoria University.


Clerks of Courts in Victoria (today’s Court Registrars) occupied a relatively subordinate position within the public sector hierarchy. Despite the limited role envisaged for them by the Law Department and the statutory and administrative guidelines that framed their work, these court administrators exerted considerable influence within the busy summary jurisdiction. This thesis explores the nature of clerks of courts’ formal and informal discretionary power, and how such power evolved in the context of organisational, legal and social change culminating in the 1980s. Semi-structured interviews with registrars, former clerks, magistrates and judges were conducted to investigate the counter-intuitive concept of lower-level public servants exerting power and influence. Resulting data was analysed using primarily Michael Lipsky’s Street-level Bureaucrat framework. Findings show that, although flying under the radar, clerks were foundational and forceful actors in the provision and ongoing development of the summary court jurisdiction in Victoria. Their influence derived from a striking combination of factors: their nexus with the judiciary, their court craft and detailed knowledge of statute law, their community connections and status, and their sustained endeavour to self-organise and maintain a strong culture in the face of challenges to their role. These elements also influenced how clerks as a group and as individuals chose to employ discretion in delivering justice to citizens. At their best, they humanised and made procedurally fairer what could have been experienced as an alienating and inequitably weighted justice system.

Item type Thesis (PhD thesis)
Subjects Current > FOR (2020) Classification > 4804 Law in context
Current > FOR (2020) Classification > 4805 Legal systems
Current > FOR (2020) Classification > 5002 History and philosophy of specific fields
Current > Division/Research > Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities
Current > Division/Research > Sir Zelman Cowen Centre
Keywords Clerks of Courts; Victoria; Court Registrars; power; 1980s; clerks; change; women
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