News: The High Court’s birthday pinch

A week ago, Associate Justice Verity McWilliam of the ACT Supreme Court pondered a real-life law exam problem:

The plaintiff in these proceedings was born in a leap year, on 29 February 2000. She has been charged with committing certain criminal offences on 28 February 2018, being a common year (or non-leap year). The question on this judicial review application is whether, at the time she allegedly committed those offences, she was 17 and therefore a child at law, or 18 and therefore an adult.

To find that the plaintiff committed her alleged offences when she was (just) a child, McWilliam AJ distinguished not just The Pirates of Penzance but also a High Court judgment. In 1961, a majority of the High Court held that alleged car accident victim Charles John Prowse’s ‘coming… of full age’ occurred at the start of the day before his 21st birthday, citing a strange common law rule. As Dixon CJ explained:

In the anonymous case mentioned in argument in Nichols v. Ramsel the question was in a devise whether the testator was of age or not. The report says “and the evidence was that he was born on the first day of January in the afternoon of that day and died in the morning of the last day of December: and it was held by all the judges that he was of full age; for there shall be no fraction of a day”.

The result was that Prowse, who sued for negligence on the day before his 27th birthday, found his case (just) barred by a six-year statute of limitations that started after his majority.

Justice Windeyer’s judgment in Prowse commenced:

In measuring lapse of time the common law eschews metaphysics. Nevertheless some nice questions have arisen for the courts. In one of the first references to the topic, Dyer’s note of Thomas Somerset’s Case in 1562, it is said “ceo fuit un narrow pinche in le case”. There have been narrow pinches since then.

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Pipikos v Trayans

The High Court has dismissed an appeal against a decision of the Supreme Court of South Australia regarding the principles governing the doctrine of part performance (namely, when an otherwise unenforceable oral contract over land can be recognised by the court because of acts of part performance of the agreement, so as to support an award of specific performance). The question raised was whether the requirements of the doctrine of part performance should be relaxed in line with the liberal test proposed by the House of Lords in Steadman v Steadman [1976] AC 536, which merely required that the acts pointed on the balance of probabilities to the formation of a contract. The Australian test has hitherto reflected that expressed in Maddison v Alderson (1883) 8 App Cas 467, which requires the acts of part performance to be unequivocally referable to some such contract as alleged. The High Court confirmed that the Australian position remains the same, and declined to adopt Steadman v Steadman.

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The Queen v Dennis Bauer (a pseudonym)

The High Court has allowed a Crown appeal against a decision of Victoria’s Court of Appeal that had quashed the defendant’s convictions on 18 counts of sexual offences. When he was first tried in 2014, the defendant was charged with 37 counts against five complainants related to events between 1967 and 1998 and convicted of 33 of those. However, the Court of Appeal quashed those convictions in 2015, criticising the prosecution for overloading the indictment. The defendant then faced a series of separate (and in five instances aborted) trials relating to the three of the complainants and was acquitted in relation to two of them. The High Court appeal concerns the defendant’s 18 convictions a 2016 trial in relation to the third complainant, his foster daughter, for alleged sexual offending between 1988 and 1998, when she was aged between 4 and 15 and the defendant was between 42 and 53.

In 2017, the Court of Appeal quashed the defendant’s convictions for the second time and ordered a new trial, on three broad grounds. First, that the jury should not have been shown a recording of the complainant’s evidence at a previous trial, because her expressed strong preference not to testify was not sufficient to justify such a step. Second, that the jury should not have been told of evidence of uncharged sexual offences by the defendant against the complainant, because such evidence did not satisfy the requirement of ‘significant probative value’. Third, that the jury should not have been told that the complainant described the accused’s offending to a school friend in 1998, as there was no evidence that the events were ‘fresh in her memory’ when she described them and her description was too generic to have any probative value.

The High Court (Kiefel CJ,  Bell, Gageler, Keane, Nettle, Gordon & Edelman JJ) unanimously allowed the Crown’s appeal, rejecting all three grounds of appeal relied upon by the Court of Appeal. Continue reading

News: The Court unites on child sexual abuse prosecutions

In the middle of Wednesday’s criminal appeal decision by the High Court, The Queen v Dennis Bauer (a pseudonym) [2018] HCA 40 is the following remarkable paragraph:

[P]revious decisions of this Court have left unclear when and if a complainant’s evidence of uncharged sexual and other acts is admissible as tendency evidence in proof of charged sexual offences. That is due in part to differences of opinion between members of the Court in HML – and in subsequent tendency evidence decisions, most recently IMM – as to the rationale of admissibility of tendency evidence in single complainant sexual offences cases. It is unsatisfactory that trial judges and intermediate courts of appeal should be faced with that problem. It is also unsatisfactory that the issue should continue to be attended by as many complexities as have thus far been thought to surround it. The admissibility of tendency evidence in single complainant sexual offences cases should be as straightforward as possible consistent with the need to ensure that the accused receives a fair trial. With that objective, the Court has resolved to put aside differences of opinion and speak with one voice on the subject.

And speak with one voice the seven justices did, issuing a unanimous joint judgment to resolve all of the many issues raised by the appeal. While unanimous joint judgments have become commonplace in the High Court of late, child sexual abuse appeals have been a notable exception, with narrowly divided decisions on the topic in 2001, 20062008, 2012, 2016 and 2017, the last four with 4-3 splits.

Still more remarkable is that the Court’s new ‘one voice’ is at odds with the voices of five justices from just two years ago, including four current justices. Continue reading

Mighty River International Ltd v Hughes; Mighty River International Ltd v Mineral Resources Ltd

The High Court has published its reasons for dismissing two appeals against a decision of the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Western Australia on deeds of company arrangement. Part 5.3A of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth), which deals with the administration of companies with solvency issues, provides for companies and their creditors to enter into a deed of company arrangement to either prevent the company from becoming insolvent, or, at least, to provide creditors with a better return than would result from a winding up.

The appellant Mighty River and Mineral Resources Ltd (the first respondent in the second appeal) were both creditors of Mesa Minerals Ltd, which was placed into voluntary administration and had administrators appointed (the respondents Hughes and Bredenkamp). Mesa’s creditors voted in favour of the Administrators’ proposal to draw up a deed of company arrangement that placed a moratorium on creditors’ claims, required the administrators to conduct further investigations and then report on varying the deed within six months. Mighty River’s efforts to have the deed declared void were unsuccessful at first instance and before the WASCA.

After a hearing before the Full Court on 19 June, the High Court dismissed the appeals, with Kiefel CJ stating that the Court, ‘at least by a majority’, was of the view that the appeals be dismissed. On 12 September Continue reading

News: A gap in the Court’s revised October list

The High Court has now released its business list for its sitting in the middle two weeks of October.The delayed publication is likely due to the recent vacation of a hearing date for a trust dispute involving Gina Rinehart and the settlement of the constitutional challenge to the Murray/Darling Royal Commission, both cases that had previously been scheduled for hearing during those two weeks. Although there are eight matters listed, in reality there are only three the Court now says it plans to hear:

  • Clubb v Edwards; Preston v Avery are two criminal appeals raising constitutional challenges to laws in the ACT and Victoria creating ‘zones’ around abortion providers that bar some sorts of behaviour. The cases are high profile ones with seven Attorneys-General intervening and four further parties recently given leave to act as friends of the court.
  • Grajewski v DPP (NSW) likewise concerns the law about protesting, but here it is the statutory interpretation issue of whether the action of a person suspending himself from machinery counts as the offence of damaging property.
  • ASIC v Lewski; ASIC v Wooldridge; ASIC v Butler; ASIC v Jaques; ASIC v Clarke are civil penalty proceedings against five directors of a failed aged care and retirement trust concerning whether they breached their duties when they amended the trust’s constitution.

The recent changes mean that one constitutional case has been replaced by another, and Grajewski has replaced Rinehart, leaving the scheduled workload unchanged at three cases. While three matters in a sitting is notably fewer than usual, it does happen occasionally. Indeed, it happened last October, when the Court spent its first sitting week hearing the Citizenship 7 case, and its second hearing two quite short matters.

The scheduling of the coming October sitting is more unusual, however. Continue reading