The functions of the Master in Equity were both administrative and judicial. The judicial functions were of an essentially limited nature, and consisted of matters referred by a judge in the Equity jurisdiction, usually in respect to inquiries regarding the valuation of property, be it real property or investments such as shares or next-of-kin inquiries, or the taking of accounts such as estate accounts or partnership accounts. Like many legal concepts and institutions in Australia, the office of Master in Equity had its origins in England. (1)
The 1823 Charter of Justice made provision for a Master and Keeper of Records, to be a Master of the Court not a Master in Equity, but by 1828 without apparent justification the Master confined himself to work in the equitable jurisdiction and was referred to as the Master in Equity. In 1832 the office was declared insolvent and abolished, but in 1840 under the NSW Administration of Justice Act (4 Vict c 22, s 22), provision was made for the revival of the office of Master in Equity, and in 1842 a Master in Equity was duly appointed, administering next-of-kin inquiries, the taking of accounts, the examination of persons connected with companies in liquidation, and any other inquiry directed by a judge to be held by the Master. (2)
The Supreme Court Act, Act No.52 of 1970, assented to on 14 October 1970, appointed a Master in Equity, to be assigned to the Equity Division and to the Protective Division, but not assigned to any other Division without the Master’s consent. (3) Subsequently, it was decreed that the Court should administer concurrently all rules of law, including rules of equity (4), that a plaintiff entitled to any equitable estate formerly provided by a Court of Equity would be entitled to Court proceedings of a like purpose (5), and that where a defendant claims to be entitled to any equitable estate or right, the Court shall provide the plaintiff with access to all equitable defences. (6)
The two Divisions of the Supreme Court consist of the Common Law Division and the Equity Division (as of 1 July 1999), each with a Chief Judge. (7)
The Equity Division hears equity, probate, commercial, admiralty, and protective matters. Equity matters include claims for civil relief which does not involve the recovery of debts or damages, including claims for injunctions to restrain wrongful conduct, claims to have contracts specifically enforced or set aside, claims to have rights to property (including land and intellectual property) declared and enforced, claims relating to the administration of corporations, partnerships, trusts, and applications under the Property Relationships Act (1984), Adoption Act (2000), and the Family Provision Act (1982). Other equity matters include probate and deceased estate matters, which includes the validity or interpretation of a will or the administration of an estate of a deceased person, commercial transactions involving substantial amounts of money or issues of importance to trade and commerce, plus substantial building and engineering contracts, admiralty matters involving disputes relating to ships or their cargoes, and protective matters involving the admission of patients to psychiatric hospitals, or the management of the affairs of persons incapable of managing them on their own. (8)
The proceedings of the Court of Appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeal, the Common Law Division, and the Equity Division are held in any one of the following locations – Law Courts Building, Queens Square, Sydney, St James Road Court, St James Road, Sydney, King Street Courthouse, Corner King and Elizabeth Streets, Sydney, Darlinghurst Courthouse, Taylor Square, Sydney, and Wentworth Chambers, 180 Phillip Street, Sydney. The Court’s Registry is in Sydney, with Sub-Registries located at Newcastle, Wollongong, Lismore, Orange, and Wagga Wagga. (9)
2. Equity, Doctrines and Remedies, RP Meagher, WMC Gummow, JRF Lehane, Butterworths 1975, Equity History, p.15.
3. http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/nsw/consol_act/sca1970183/s14.html, NSW Consolidated Acts, Supreme Court Act 1970, Sect 14, p.1.
4. ibid, Sect 57, p.1.
5. ibid, Sect 58, p.1.
6. ibid, Sect 59, p.1.
7. Attorney General's Department website www.lawlink.nsw.gov.au/lawlink/Supreme_Court/11_sc.nsf/pages/SCO_aboutus (cited 22 February 2008), p.1.
8. ibid, p.3.