News: High Court circuit hearings reduced by budget cuts?

As the Canberra Times reports, the High Court has just released its Annual Report for 2014 – 2015, which contains an alarming warning about circuit hearings around the country in light of budget cuts imposed by government imposed ‘efficiency dividends’. In French CJ’s Overview, he says at page 16:

In the 2014-2015 year, income received by the High Court including from its principal source, namely parliamentary appropriations, was $16.336 million. Operating expenses including unfunded depreciation charges of $4.802 million amounted to a total of $21.167 million. The underlying deficit after taking out unfunded depreciation allowances was $29,334.

The High Court has a small administration. Its total staff comprises (not including Justices) 99 persons. Thirty-seven are full-time and part-time ongoing staff, 36 are full-time and part-time non-ongoing staff and 26 are casual staff. The Court operates nationally with extended logistical requirements and large fixed costs. Its level of funding is low compared with the Parliament and many parts of the Executive Government. Historically its appropriated revenues have not kept pace with unavoidable cost increases particularly in building related expenditure. Many of the Court’s administrative costs are fixed, for example, statutory charges for electricity to operate the building. Government imposed efficiency dividends affect core elements of the Court’s operations such as Registry and Library staffing. The Court has undertaken comprehensive reviews of its Registry and administrative processes and structures since 2008. The position continues to be that there is no material scope to reduce the Court’s administrative costs without cutting significant elements of its operations including circuit visits which it undertakes from time to time to Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane dependent upon the workload in those capitals.

[emphasis added]

It would not be positive if the High Court were no longer able to go on circuit to some capital cities (or, as the Canberra Times suggests, any other capital cities other than Canberra). The High Court is a court for all of Australia, and as such, it is important that it has a presence in all States and Territories of Australia.

Back in the days when I was a State judge’s associate, I became enraged by a government questionnaire which described the court as a “business unit.” Courts are not “business units”. They do not produce profits. While courts certainly should not waste money, and should have an efficient administration, it sounds like the High Court has already achieved this. Fundamentally, the High Court is an essential arm of government whose role it is to adjudicate disputes. What price justice?

News: Suppression applications in the High Court

A week ago, the High Court’s registry listed the following matter before Gageler J at 11am in the Court’s Sydney registry:


While it appears likely that this is a criminal law matter, no other information about it is public knowledge. Apart from insiders (and whoever else happened to be in the courtroom that day), no-one knows who the applicant is, who (or what) the non-Queen party was, what orders were already in place, what orders were sought, the grounds for the application, the arguments made, what orders (if any) were made and the reasons for Gageler J’s decision (if any.) In these respects, the High Court is similar to other Australian courts, where such opaque listings are commonplace. Thanks to its practice of publishing transcripts of its hearings online for free, the High Court is usually much more open than other Australian courts.  However, no transcript of any hearing from last Wednesday has been published.

However, transcripts from a different matter a week earlier are more illuminating. Continue reading

Endings and Fairness: The Clean Energy Act 2011 (Cth) and Queensland Nickel: Queensland Nickel Pty Ltd v Commonwealth

By Brad Jessup

Queensland Nickel Case Page

Australia’s first national laws to put a price on carbon were effective to their end; reportedly leading to reductions in Australia’s combined greenhouse gas emissions. In their absence it has been reported that increases in emissions have resumed. While our new Prime Minister grapples with how to rein in these emissions, the High Court last year confirmed that the carbon price laws were lawful, and through the prism of the Constitution fair, to their end. The history books will show, however, that politicians failed to make the case for a carbon price law, but they devised and crafted a successful, if complex though geographically unfair, legal policy. Over the past few days the protagonist in the High Court case, Queensland Nickel, with the business faltering, has brought claims of fairness into the political discourse around this business’ carbon intensive operations.

The Constitution and no interstate discrimination

In Queensland Nickel Pty Ltd v Commonwealth [2015] HCA 12, notable also as Nettle J’s first judgment, the High Court dismissed a claim by Queensland Nickel that regulations supporting the principal Act, the Clean Energy Act 2011 (Cth), were unconstitutional based on their geographic effect. Arguments relying on s 99 of the Constitution, the non-discrimination provision, that the regulations inadvertently and indirectly discriminated against the Queensland-based refinery business wholly owned by Clive Palmer MP, the federal parliamentary member for Fairfax, were rejected.

The High Court concluded that the additional financial liability imposed on Queensland Nickel relative to other refineries in Western Australia that triggered the case was not a cause of a difference or discrimination on the grounds of physical or jurisdictional geography but a result of past decisions made by Queensland Nickel on purely financial grounds. The effect of the laws as experienced by Queensland Nickel relative to its Western Australian competitors may have had an increased financial burden on Mr Palmer’s company, which has not been attributed to the company’s financial woes, but that burden was not attributable to the law; rather business decisions made by the company in its infancy.

In the High Court case, Nettle J adopted the plurality view in the Fortescue Metals case, and found that the particular parts of the carbon price regulation that set out liabilities for nickel refineries ‘did not discriminate between States. In terms, it applied equally to eligible persons carrying on the production of nickel regardless of the State of production’ (at [56]). Although Nettle J acknowledged a difference in practical effect of the laws for Queensland Nickel, he considered that ‘in this case it does not appear that any of the differences between the plaintiff’s and the Western Australian nickel producers’ inputs, production processes or outputs were due to differences between Queensland and Western Australia in natural, business or other circumstances’ (at [58]).

Instead, Nettle J focussed on past decisions about mining processes as giving rise to the different effect of the laws. The mining process adopted by Queensland Nickel was found to have been the reason for the greater financial burden under the laws. Although Nettle J conceded that the mining process decision ‘was informed by geographic considerations’ (at [61]), the decisions were ultimately based on delivering to each firm the greatest possible financial windfall at the time the decisions were made in the historical technological settings.

This conclusion, which eschews considerations of the geography of place, effect, and time in preference for considerations of financial autonomy offers an appropriate and consistent ending for the Clean Energy Act 2011, because financial interests trumped geographic interests and fairness throughout its invention, implementation and repeal.

Continue reading

News: Baden-Clay’s resentencing delayed until High Court hearing

One of the most closely watched High Court matters of 2016 is an application to appeal a Queensland Court of Appeal decision from December, concerning a high profile domestic homicide. In R v Baden-Clay [2015] QCA 265, the Queensland court (including the state’s new Chief Justice Catherine Holmes) rejected the Brisbane real estate agent’s complaints about the conduct of his homicide trial, but accepted his argument that the jury’s verdict of murder was unreasonable:

[T]here remained in this case a reasonable hypothesis consistent with innocence of murder: that there was a physical confrontation between the appellant and his wife in which he delivered a blow which killed her (for example, by the effects of a fall hitting her head against a hard surface) without intending to cause serious harm; and, in a state of panic and knowing that he had unlawfully killed her, he took her body to Kholo Creek in the hope that it would be washed away, while lying about the causes of the marks on his face which suggested conflict…

In consequence, the appeal against conviction must be allowed, the verdict of guilty of murder set aside and a verdict of manslaughter substituted. Counsel for the respondent should file and serve submissions as to sentence by 15 January 2016, with the submissions for the appellant to be filed and served by 22 January 2016.

Last week, Holmes CJ revisited the final sentence of that judgment on the application of Queensland’s DPP. In doing so, she addressed when a lower court should (and shouldn’t) change course in response to a planned High Court appeal. Continue reading