Charles Cooper, a timid, retiring, weak-voiced, sickly and barely successful English barrister, accepted appointment as Judge in South Australia in 1839.
A sound rather than a brilliant lawyer, duty was his watchword, evangelical churchmanship his consolation. For 17 years, he trudged on through illness and the meanness of the Colonial Office which saw him one of the worst paid judges on colonial service. In 1856 he was recognized at last with appointment as the Province’s first Chief Justice.
Dr Bennett shows that the appointment was well merited. In a strong re-evaluation, Cooper is shown to have been a good and effective judge, whose puny modern reputation has been shaped too much by the distorted, politically based, views of critics of his day.
His early years on the Bench required him to grapple with the problem of trying to apply English law to the indigenous people. He brought peace to a querulous legal profession and did much to reverse entrenched community contempt for authority existing in Adelaide on his arrival.
His workload was enormous. He remained the only judge until 1850 and thereafter he found himself often in collision with the eccentric and irrepressible Benjamin Boothby (appointed puisne judge in 1853). Sick and exhausted, Sir Charles Cooper retired to England on a pension in 1861. There he regained his health and survived to the age of 92, a further 26 years. He had supported the explorations of Charles Sturt who named the legendary Cooper’s Creek in his honour.