Legal publishing began with the arrival of the convict George Hughes in the colony of New South Wales. In 1788, the First Fleet had carried a printing press but not a printer, so it was not until 16 November 1796 that the first legal publication was printed: Instructions for the Constables in Country Districts.
Newspapers, however, quickly became the outlet for publication of the government directives that were the colony’s law in the years preceding democracy. The first of these was the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, and the income from the government directives it published ensured its economic survival. This was also the case for the Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Register (1816), the Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal (1833) and the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register (1836). This nexus between the newspapers and official information was short-lived, and by 1840 each colony had its own Government Gazette.
Statute law publishing began shortly after the establishment of the first legislature, in New South Wales, in 1824. Initially enactments were published in pamphlet form, but in 1827 the government published three volumes of the statutes and ordinances passed in 1824–27, beginning regular official publication of legislation in volume form. Van Diemen’s Land followed— but sporadically.
The statutes were not consolidated, and the need for accessible and updated legislation provided opportunities for private publications. The most notable was Thomas Callaghan’s ‘Statutes’, systematic, subject-based, well-edited and indexed volumes of the operative NSW legislation between 1824 and 1852. It was followed by consolidations of statutes in all colonies in the 19th century, usually privately published.
Newspapers remained the acceptable and often the only publishers of law reports in all colonies for much of the 19th century. Only eight volumes of law reports were published before 1856, the first of which was William A’Beckett’s Reserved and Equity Judgments of the Supreme Court of New South Wales (1845). Systematic publication of separate volumes of law reports began in the larger colonies in the 1860s and 1870s, with occasional faltering.
The increasing volume of statute and case law spawned a mass of commentary, most often in the form of pamphlets. However, legal texts began to be published, beginning in the 1830s, probably 1835, with either the Attorney’s Clerks Guide, traditionally the first publication, or J.H. Plunkett’s Australian Magistrate. Most private publishers were law stationers for whom publishing was a natural extension of the services they provided to the legal profession. Often, necessary government subsidy was provided. J.B. Sheridan and J.W. Bakewell’s Magistrate’s Guide, for example, at almost 900 pages, was published in 1879 by the South Australian Government Printer.
Legal publishing was thus lively, scattered and disordered when Charles F. Maxwell opened a legal bookshop in Melbourne in 1868. His object was to sell the publications of his family’s company, the London legal publisher Sweet & Maxwell, but he quickly added publishing to his activities. Separate books on criminal law and evidence appeared in 1871, and the first edition of T.P. Webb’s Compendium of the Imperial Law in 1874. In 1879 he began the Australian Law Times, the first legal publication to attempt an Australia-wide perspective. It was a fortnightly journal of legal news and case reports, which was combined with the Australian Law Journal in 1929.
Maxwell’s publishing house survived his death in 1889, emerging as the Law Book Company of Australasia Pty Ltd in 1903. It became the publisher of most series of authorised law reports, led by the Commonwealth Law Reports, begun in 1903, and of consolidations of such reports—for example the Queensland Criminal Reports: 1860–1907, published in 1913. These publications, together with the texts of its English parent company, provided an unrivalled financial platform from which it could launch an expanding list of journals, textbooks and encyclopaediae, most notably the Australian Digest in 1934.
A second English law publisher entered Australia when Butterworths opened a shop in Sydney in 1911 to market and sell its titles. Like Charles Maxwell a generation earlier, it soon began local publishing, and by 1945 its Australian list comprised 21 books and nine periodicals.
These two companies formed a duopoly for most of the 20th century, and it was widely thought that their position was unchallengeable. This cosy, established world was transformed in 1969, when the Law Book Company sold its Greenwood Challoner tax service to the wellknown American legal publisher CCH. The timing of CCH’s entry into Australia was fortuitous: the 1970s saw an exponential increase in the amount of legislation passed by Australian parliaments and a similar growth in the number of legal practitioners. These provided both content and market for the looseleaf services in which CCH specialised. The tax service was redeveloped and updated with unheard of speed and frequency; legal publishing was revolutionised. Butterworths followed energetically, the Law Book Company, financially sustained by its dominance of the Law Reports, more slowly.
For all three publishers, serial publications became, and have remained, dominant. The looseleaf era was short-lived, as technology brought change and the publishers realised the potential of electronic publications. Coverage of the major areas of legal practice, and focus on the provision of even faster digital access to the primary materials of statutes and cases, as well as commentary, gave lawyers unprecedented access to research information. While the costs were high and the competition between the companies fierce, the rewards were huge: few lawyers could practise without them.
Book publishing became a backwater, the income too small in the absence of a high-priced market among commercial lawyers or a large one among students. Book publication has, however, been sustained and expanded by The Federation Press. Its financial structure has enabled it to publish where the major companies find it uneconomic. Established in 1987, it is the first Australian-owned legal publisher to survive and prosper since Charles F. Maxwell began a modern legal publishing ‘industry’ in 1869.
REF: Castles’ Annotated Bibliography of Printed Materials on Australian Law 1788–1900 (1994).