About Jeremy Gans

Jeremy Gans is a Professor in Melbourne Law School, where he researches and teaches across all aspects of the criminal justice system. He holds higher degrees in both law and criminology. In 2007, he was appointed as the Human Rights Adviser to the Victorian Parliament's Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee.

News: Kiefel CJ describes and defends her Court’s judicial method [updated]

The new Chief Justice of the High Court, Susan Kiefel, gave the 2017 ‘Supreme Court Oration‘ in Brisbane last week to a sell-out crowd. I dare say it is one of the most significant speeches a sitting Chief Justice has given, outlining in detail the High Court’s current process for producing judgments and responding to some criticisms of that Court’s approaches, including those of former High Court judge Dyson Heydon and current President of the NSW Court of Appeal, Margaret Beazley. The Australian Financial Review covered the speech as favouring ‘productivity over prose‘, and contrasted her approach to one-time law student favourite Lord Denning. The Chief Justice’s line:

I have always assumed it to be a universally held view that a judgment should be as succinctly stated as the matter allows.

has the potential to be her version of Dixon CJ’s famous, and much debated, pronouncement: ‘There is no other safe guide to judicial decisions in great conflicts than a strict and complete legalism.’

The 12-page speech has far too much detail to cover in a short news post. However, one passage, explaining one reason she deprecates unnecessary separate judgments, caught my (and the Australian Financial Review‘s) eye: Continue reading

News: Three grants of leave

Last week’s special leave hearings broke a four-month drought in appeals granted special leave ‘on the papers’. There were three grants of leave announced, one on Wednesday (without a hearing) and one each on Friday’s two oral hearings in Brisbane and Sydney.

The three appeals that will now go to the High Court are:

  • Compton v Ramsay Health Care Australia Pty Ltd [2016] FCAFC 106, which concerns the circumstances when a person who a court previously held owed a debt and is now bankrupt can now argue that he didn’t owe the debt. In 2015, the NSW Supreme Court held that the respondent owed just under $10,000 to the applicant after guaranteeing a now bankrupt company’s debts, rejecting his argument that details of the debt were not attached to the papers he signed and that he wasn’t aware of them. After he went bankrupt and the applicant applied to sequester the debt (preserving it from the demands of other creditors), he submitted new financial evidence challenging whether the bankrupt company ever owed anything to the respondent. The Full Court of the Federal Court unanimously held that the trial judge should have opted to inquire into whether any debt was owed, even though the applicant never challenged the amount of the debt in the NSW Supreme Court.
  • Kennedy & Thorne [2016] FamCAFC 189, which examines the enforceability of binding financial agreements (colloquially known as ‘pre-nups’), where one party insists on the agreement as a pre-condition to marriage. The parties to a 2007 marriage differed in assets (none vs $18M),  Australian immigration status (a tourist visa vs Australian citizenship) and English fluency (little vs complete.) A week before they married, they signed an agreement prepared by the richer party’s solicitor, despite the poor party receiving independent legal advice that the agreement was ‘no good’ and (about a further agreement shortly after the marriage) ‘terrible’. Ruling after their 2011 separation and the richer spouse’s death in 2014, the Full Court of the Family Court overturned a trial judge’s finding that the agreement was the result of duress, holding that the trial judge failed to provide adequate reasons for the finding of duress and failed to make a finding of unlawful pressure (as opposed to a mere threat not to marry), instead holding that the agreement was binding on both parties.
  • Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association v ALDI Foods Pty Ltd [2016] FCAFC 161, concerns the process for approving a regional enterprise agreement with employees who are presently in a different region. After the majority of seventeen employees of Aldi who were offered roles in a new ‘region’ of the company’s operations (on the NSW/SA border) voted to approve an enterprise agreement and the agreement was approved by the Fair Work Commission, the union (which was not involved in the earlier agreement) challenged the agreement on three grounds. A majority of the Full Court of the Federal Court held that the agreement could not be approved because it failed a statutory requirement that ‘the agreement has been genuinely agreed to by the employees covered by the agreement’ – at the time of the vote, the new region had no employees. The same majority also held that the Commission failed to properly apply the requirement that the employees be ‘better off overall’, relying instead on a clause in the agreement that promised the employees equal (but not better) terms than the award. But the Court unanimously held that it could not invalidate the agreement because of a one-word deviation between the notice given to the employees and the required wording, because, to the extent that the different wording was important – something the three judges differed on –  the Commission’s failure to act on it was not a jurisdictional error.

News: The High Court splits three ways on three-way splits

Today’s decision in Perara-Cathcart v The Queen [2017] HCA 9 reviews a split decision in the Full Court of South Australia’s Supreme Court, which Gageler J’s judgment usefully describes with a table:

This combination raises a long-standing puzzle about the judgments of multi-member courts that have to decide two different issues in a particular case and manage to produce a three-way split. Continue reading

News: Four new criminal law appeals, including Van Beelen case

The Kiefel Court held its first oral special leave hearings on Friday morning. Last week, the Court ruled on several dozen written applications, dismissing them all. According to the High Court’s business list, a further seven matters were ‘TO BE HEARD IN CANBERRA AND BY VIDEO-LINK TO ADELAIDE AND TO SYDNEY’. However, on Thursday, the next day’s court list revealed, for the first time, that there would be two separate hearings at the same time, one in Canberra (hearing three applications, including two from Adelaide via video link) and the remaining four live in Sydney (rather than from Sydney via video link. [EDIT: Corrected. See comment below.]) It seems unlikely that anyone was put out by this late change of plans, but it is also unclear why it was not announced earlier.

The High Court granted leave in four matters, all of which relate to crimes or the criminal law. The four decisions appealed are: Continue reading

Catch-22 in the Court of Disputed Returns: Re Culleton (No 2)

By Jeremy Gans

Re Culleton [No 2] Case Page

‘What did you mean,’ he inquired slowly, ‘when you said we couldn’t punish you?’ ‘When, sir?’ ‘I’m asking the questions. You’re answering them.’

No-one cares about Re Culleton [No 2] [2017] HCA 4. Not Rod Culleton, who is out of the Senate regardless, thanks to his bankruptcy problems. Not political types, because the One Nation candidate’s spot will just be taken by another one. Not anyone else, because no-one much likes the ex-Senator (or never Senator or whatever he is — was? — now) or cares who’s who in One Nation. And, it seems, not the High Court either, which last week phoned in a judgment in the case.

This indifference is a bit of a pity. Re Culleton [No 2] raises lots of issues that have nothing to do with Culleton and a number that have nothing to do with elections — and the High Court’s judgment fluffs several of them. Re Culleton [No 2] is a fine example of much that is wrong with Australia’s apex court these days.

‘I didn’t say you couldn’t punish me, sir.’ ‘When?’ asked the colonel. ‘When what, sir?’ ‘Now you’re asking me questions again.’

Every Australian’s right to be elected to Parliament (and to cast a valid vote for their preferred candidate) is limited by the following text:

44 Any person who:

(i) is under any acknowledgment of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power; or

(ii) is attainted of treason, or has been convicted and is under sentence, or subject to be sentenced, for any offence punishable under the law of the Commonwealth or of a State by imprisonment for one year or longer; or

(iii) is an undischarged bankrupt or insolvent; or

(iv) holds any office of profit under the Crown, or any pension payable during the pleasure of the Crown out of any of the revenues of the Commonwealth; or

(v) has any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth otherwise than as a member and in common with the other members of an incorporated company consisting of more than twenty-five persons;

shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.

Section 44 of the Constitution is well meant, but has mostly silly effects. Para (i) forces all dual citizens who want to stand for election to first give up their non-Australian citizenship forever. Para (iv) likely forces all public servants (including all teachers) to quit (and not just take leave from) their jobs if they just want to try to become an MP. Para (v) is basically incomprehensible (and might invalidate the election of many investors, depending on how the High Court rules in Re Day [No 2].) Para (iii), the best of a bad bunch, still makes it risky for anyone to combine running a business with being a politician (as both Rod Culleton and Bob Day exemplify.)

And then there’s para (ii), which keeps Parliament free of (some) criminals. While that certainly sounds like a good idea, Australia’s contemporary criminal law is a good deal broader than most people imagine. The drafters of s 44(ii) wanted to ban people convicted of a ‘felony or any infamous crime’, which in 1900 covered the sort of crimes that could see criminals executed or deprived of all of their property. But Samuel Griffiths, realising that criminal law terms can change or lose their meaning over time, suggested a different test: ‘any offence punishable under the law of the Commonwealth or of a State by imprisonment for one year or longer’. Alas, those replacement words – especially ‘offence punishable’ – are now s 44(ii)’s biggest problem.

‘When didn’t you say we couldn’t punish you? Don’t you understand my question?’ ‘No, sir. I don’t understand.’ ‘You’ve just told us that. Now suppose you answer my question.’

We mainly know criminal ‘offences’ by their shorthand labels — murder, rape, theft, etc — but, under Australian law, offences actually consist of a complex (often very broad) definition and a maximum (often very high) penalty. Lots of offences cover an extremely wide range of behaviour, from absolutely trivial to extremely serious. Assault can be anything from an unwanted tap on the shoulder to a kick in the face. Drug possession can be anything from one banned pill to a truck full of contraband. Criminal damage can be anything from putting up a poster to burning down a house. Child pornography can be anything from a sext on your phone to a hard drive’s worth of horror. And so on. We tolerate these broad definitions (and the accompanying vast maximum penalties) because Australia’s criminal justice system is also full of discretion: prosecutors rarely chose to prosecute trivia and, if they do, judges rarely choose to punish it.

But there is no discretion in s 44(ii). If you have ever done anything trivial that happens to fall within the definition of a serious offence, then you can lose your right to stand for election (and your voters will lose their right to elect you) simply through bad timing, even though you never came within cooee of ‘imprisonment’. All it takes is for someone to charge you with an offence that bundles together whatever trivial thing you did with much more serious behaviour that merits a lengthy stay in prison. That is exactly what happened to Rod Culleton. Continue reading

News: ACs in the HCA

This has undoubtedly been a busy week for the High Court’s website manager, with multiple changes to incorporate, including moving Kiefel J to Chief Justice and inserting Edelman J in the current justices list, and removing French CJ from the current justices list – he is now at the end of the Former Chief Justices list. A further change, also visible on the Court’s ‘About the Justices’ page, as to add ‘AC’ to all mentions of Gageler J:

As this image shows, the photo of the seven judges has not yet been updated (though French CJ is blocked by the drop-down menu.) Presumably, the Court is waiting for the first occasion when the seven current judges sit together (probably Thursday’s hearing of Rizeq v Western Australia, concerning the application of the constitutional right to a jury in state prosecutions involving non-state residents.)

Amidst the excitement of Kiefel CJ and Edelman J’s new judicial roles, Gageler J’s entry into the General Division of the Companion of the Order of Australia,  five years after his appointment to the High Court, has received little attention. Continue reading

News: Kiefel CJ’s swearing in by Bell J

The swearing in of Justice Kiefel as the Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia was major news throughout Australia, and rightly so. But, as Professor Adrienne Stone pointed out on twitter, the Australian Financial Review fluffed its reporting:

The photo the Fin used was from Kiefel J’s swearing in as a High Court judge in 2007. On Monday, Kiefel CJ was sworn in by the High Court’s next most senior judge, Bell J, arguably adding to the groundbreaking nature of the event from a gender perspective.

Without letting Fairfax off the hook, I have noticed that there don’t seem to be any photos online of Bell J swearing in Kiefel CJ anywhere. Continue reading

News: Testimony in the High Court

Here’s something you don’t often read in High Court transcripts:

HER HONOUR: Come into the witness box please, Mrs Smith. Do you wish to take an oath or an affirmation?
MRS SMITH: An oath.
DEBRA KIM SMITH, sworn:
HER HONOUR: Have a seat please, Mrs Smith, and pour yourself a glass of water if you would like one.
THE WITNESS: Thank you.

Debra Smith was testifying before Gordon J as part of litigation about the validity of former Senator Bob Day’s election last year. The final case’s hearing will be held in the second week of February before the full High Court (with Susan Kiefel as Chief Justice and James Edelman newly on the bench.) This week’s hearing is a preliminary one to resolve some factual disputes, the result of an order made by French CJ in November:

10. If the parties have been unable to agree by 22 December 2016 a statement of all the facts and documents which are relevant to the reference, the hearing and determination of the facts will be heard by a single Justice at a date to be fixed with a view to a referral to the Full Court thereafter.

The parties agreed on most issues, but not all of them. According to a ruling by Gordon J last week:

Notwithstanding that agreement, Ms McEwen sought, and continues to seek, additional findings of fact. The additional facts are directed to three separate issues: Mr Day’s interest in the lease with the Commonwealth (“Issue 1”), Mr Day’s statement and declaration in nominating for the Senate in 2016 (“Issue 2”) and distortion of the vote (“Issue 3”).

At Monday’s hearing, two witnesses, Debra and her husband John, both acquaintances of Senator Day and his building company, testified on the first issue and were cross-examined by Day’s counsel.

Witness evidence before the High Court, while unusual, is not unprecedented. Continue reading

News: New special leave procedures affect injunction practices

Litigants who win their ‘day in court’ often have to wait until long afterwards to reap the rewards, because of the mere possibility that the decision might be successfully appealed. An example is a dispute between members of Perth’s Mercanti family about the validity of Michael Mercanti’s 2004 appointment of his son Tyrone in his place as appointer of a trust governing proceeds of the family’s shoe repair business. Although Tyrone first won that battle in October 2015 in Western Australia’s Supreme Court, he has been subject to a series of injunctions concerning his exercise of powers under the trust ever since. First, the Supreme initially issued an injunction in 2013, presumably when the action by Michael, his wife, and two other children, commenced. Second, after ruling in Tyrone’s favour, the same court immediately issued an injunction pending Michael’s appeal to the Court of Appeal, which effectively lasted thirteen months until Michael lost the appeal in late November 2016. Third, the Court of Appeal immediately issued a three-week injunction to allow Michael time to consider an application for special leave to the High Court. Fourth, the Court of Appeal issued a second three-week injunction because Michael (apparently for understandable reasons) was not able to act before the High Court shut for Christmas. Fifth (but perhaps not finally), earlier this month, the High Court’s Kiefel J issued a further injunction against Tyrone, with no end date. That final injunction arose, in part, because the appellants thought the Court of Appeal wouldn’t grant a longer injunction and because Tyrone wouldn’t consent to any further extension of the injunction that had governed his actions for three years.

Justice Kiefel, in the High Court’s first judgment of 2017, addressed the issue of who should decide whether to grant an injunction pending a High Court special leave application: the court being appealed from, or the High Court? Continue reading

News: French Court averaged 50 substantive judgments per year

The High Court’s 2015/2016 annual report states (as every annual report has for the past decade) that:

the numbers of Full Court hearings and decisions in 2015–16 were comparable with averages for both during the past 10 years.

However, as noted here last year, the number of published judgments in 2014 (49) and 2015 (53)  were among the fifteen lowest in the High Court’s history. With three judgments released today, 2016 equals 2015’s number of published judgments.

As previously noted, counting High Court judgments is not straightforward, because of changing practices in judgment publication (notably past courts’ willingness to issue lengthy substantive judgments on special leave applications.) The judgments published by the High Court typically include some minor judgements – single judge decisions and interlocutory rulings – that seemingly reflect publishing preferences in individual judges. This year, there were four such judgments, leaving 49 substantive judgments in 2016, one more than each of the last two years. The final counts of substantive judgments for the French Court are: Continue reading

News: Three new special leave grants round off 2016

Just when it seemed that 2016 couldn’t get any worse, the High Court’s website went out of action last weekend from late Friday afternoon until mid-Sunday. The High Court has not provided any explanation to date of the outage, either over the weekend – the Court presently does not use social media tools that would suit such notice – or since. That means that Australians (other than those who happened to be at the High Court’s Sydney or Canberra registries on Friday morning) had to wait until Monday afternoon to discover what special leave applications were granted or dismissed in the Court’s last oral hearings for the year. Applications addressed in those hearings include three matters of broad public interest: an appeal by The Age newspaper concerning an order that journalists reveal their sources to a defamation matter; a dispute in Nauru’s Supreme Court concerning its jurisdiction to hear appeals in refugee matters; and challenges to ICAC findings holding that developers committed corrupt conduct by allegedly concealing the involvement of Eddie Obeid in their proposals.

As it turns out, leave was not granted in any of those matters. Rather, yesterday afternoon, the Court’s  website revealed that three different applications were granted at the oral hearings (the only three grants in December.) The three matters that will be heard by the Kiefel Court next year are: Continue reading

News: High Court forms must now include the Queen’s name

The  High Court Amendment (2016 Measures No. 2) Rules 2016 were published on December 6th this year and took effect on December 9th. The amendments, presumably the final ones from the French Court, include new forms for arrest warrants, committal warrants, subpoenas and writs. For the first time since 2004, those forms must include the following words:

ELIZABETH THE SECOND, by the Grace of God Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth

These are the exact same words that were once required by the 2004 rules’ predecessor. As noted here, these amendments were prompted by a question from Senator Rod Culleton to Attorney-General Brandis, who pointed out that the previous version of the rules did not require that such forms comply with  s. 33 of the High Court of Australia Act 1979:

All writs, commissions and process issued from the High Court shall be:
(a) in the name of the Queen…

Even if Senator Culleton’s election is held to have been invalid by the Court of Disputed Returns, he will have had an impact on the statute book and the High Court that is rare indeed for a minor party Senator.

News: French CJ’s last words

Quote

In Wednesday’s ACCC v Flight Centre Travel Group Limited [2016] HCA 49, concerning whether Flight Centre breached competition laws by seeking a deal with some airlines not to undercut its prices, French CJ’s separate judgment concludes:

In my opinion, Flight Centre was not in competition, in any relevant market, with the airlines for which it sold tickets. Its proposals with respect to the pricing practices of its principals were not proposals offered by it as their competitor but as their agent. I would dismiss the appeal with costs.

These are very likely French CJ’s last words in a court judgment. He did participate in a second judgment on Wednesday, seconds after the ACCC one, but that was a joint judgment with (as is often the case) Kiefel, Bell & Keane JJ, and (as is always the case) no indication of who wrote it. (Austlii’s earliest judgment by French J appears to be this one.) As French CJ has no more reserved judgments (having stopped hearing cases in early October), his only possible remaining judgments would be chambers or special leave matters. His remaining duties on the Court until his resignation on 29th January next year will be almost entirely administrative or ceremonial.

Wednesday’s ACCC judgment was unusual for the outgoing Chief Justice in another respect. Continue reading

News: An Interruption in the Court of Disputed Returns

This week, the United Kingdom’s and Australia’s apex courts each held hearings that touch on recent votes in each country. The UK Supreme Court’s Brexit case (on whether triggering the UK’s exit from the EU is a matter for parliament or just the executive) is broadcast live on the Court’s website. The High Court’s Culleton hearing (where the Court of Disputed Returns will determine whether the WA One Nation Senator was disqualified by a since annulled conviction for larceny) can now be viewed on the Court’s AV archive, albeit not live. One difference that seemingly follows from this is that the video record of the Court may be incomplete. A possible example is an incident at the hearing described in The Guardian as follows:

The high court hearing into Rodney Culleton’s eligibility as a senator was interrupted by a One Nation member who labelled it a “star chamber” and “kangaroo court” after Culleton lost a bid for an adjournment. The dramatic interjection was made by member John Wilson, without Culleton’s knowledge. The senator’s chief of staff, Margaret Menzel, then remarked “he’s right” and his wife Ioanna Culleton said “at least someone has the guts to stand up [and say it]” as Wilson was asked to leave the court room.

I have been unable to locate this incident on the video recording of the hearing that appeared on the High Court’s website yesterday afternoon. Interestingly, though, there appears to be an unexplained, and unsignposted, break in the recording just after the 36 minute mark, immediately after Kiefel J says the words ‘We will now proceed to hear the substantive argument.’ You can see it most clearly by watching Keane J’s hands.

As noted in an earlier post, interruptions in apex court proceedings, usually as a form of political protest, are nothing new. However, video recording of hearings is a recent phenomenon in the High Court. If it is correct that the interruption and other events described in the media indeed occurred in the above break, then it appears that the Court may have an unannounced policy to remove these events from thevideo  record.  Continue reading

News: The Kiefel Court

Today’s news, as welcome as it is unsurprising, officially confirms that the next High Court will be the Kiefel Court. Here are some features of the new Court that will commence on 30th January 2017:

  • Susan Kiefel, age 63, appointed by Howard government until 17th January 2024
  • Virginia Bell, age 65, appointed by Rudd government until 7th March 2021
  • Stephen Gageler, age 58, appointed by Gillard government until 5th July 2028
  • Patrick Keane, age 64, appointed by Gillard government until 26th October 2022
  • Geoffrey Nettle, age 66, appointed by Abbott government until 2nd December 2020
  • Michelle Gordon age 52, appointed by Abbott government until 19th November 2034
  • James Edelman, age 43, appointed by Turnbull government until 9th January 2044

With Edelman J ( a Supreme Court judge later Federal Court judge, from WA) replacing French CJ (previously a Federal Court judge from WA, appointed by the Howard government), the Court’s diversity in appointing party, gender, geography (alas for South Australia) and prior positions remains unchanged. However, Edelman J is the Court’s first appointee born in the 1970s, just as Gordon J before him was the Court’s first appointee born in the 1960s.

Assuming no early resignations, these are the last new appointments to the High Court for four years. The next (or so) Prime Minister  will then have the opportunity to replace Nettle J and Bell J in quick succession in 2020/1, followed by Keane J in 2022. If Kiefel CJ stays for her full term, then the next most senior judges will be Gageler J, Gordon J and Edelman J. As  Gageler J will have only four years remaining on the Court (although Brennan CJ was appointed in similar circumstances), a Gordon Court from 2024-2034 and an Edelman Court from 2034-2044 would be a solid bet.

News: Ten new grants of special leave

Senators’ queries and qualifications aside, the High Court is having a quiet month, perhaps in part because some pending matters have been shifted to February when the Court will again have seven functioning judges. The Court finished off all of this month’s full court hearings in a single week and also announced orders settling or partly settling matters where special leave had been granted (in cases concerning migration, sentencing and advocates’ immunity.) At the same time, there has been a bumper crop of special leave grants this month, two on the papers last week, a spectacular five out of six applications granted in Wednesday’s oral hearing and three at today’s oral hearing.

All up, ten new cases will eventually be heard on appeal: Continue reading

News: Senator Culleton says he will not attend Court of Disputed Returns hearing

A week ago, the High Court published notices on its webpage that it will sit as the Court of Disputed Returns in relation to Senators Bob Day and Rob Culleton. The notices state:

Any person who desires to place any evidence before or make any submission to the Court should apply to the Court by email addressed to Senate.Reference.[Day/Culleton]@hcourt.gov.au by 12:00noon (AEDT) on Thursday 17 November 2016 setting out the reasons why they should be granted leave to appear before the Court. The Court may determine such application on the papers or invite the person to appear and make oral submissions to the Court in Canberra (or by video-link if required) at 11:30am (AEDT) on Monday 21 November 2016.

The apparent purpose of this hearing is to determine who will be a party to the Senate’s reference of these matters, in accordance with s378 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act:

The Court of Disputed Returns may allow any person who in the opinion of the Court is interested in the determination of any question referred to it under this Part to be heard on the hearing of the reference, or may direct notice of the reference to be served on any person, and any person so allowed to be heard or so directed to be served shall be deemed to be a party to the reference.

However, The Guardian reports that Senator Culleton will not attend, physically at least:

On Wednesday Culleton told Guardian Australia he did not intend to appear, nor to send a legal representative, but he would represent himself “in spirit” at the directions hearing.

Presumably, though, the Court of Disputed Returns will ‘direct notice of the reference to be served on’ Senator Culleton, who will then be deemed to be a party.

Senator Culleton lists several reasons for not attending on Monday. Continue reading

News: Delay anticipated in High Court challenge to Senators

Eagle eyed readers of the UK Supreme Court’s twitter page will notice a couple of contrasts to the High Court of Australia:

 

First, the United Kingdom’s apex court is on Twitter; Australia’s High Court is yet to enter the modern world of social media. Second, the Court’s twitter stream actually replies to public queries, including confirming @aforlonehope’s query that the coming 11-judge Brexit hearing will make UK procedural history. Third, up until now, the UK’s apex court has never held a hearing that involves all of the courts’ judges.

While most major hearings in Australia’s High Court involve five of the Court’s seven judges, the Court typically sits ‘en banc’ – i.e. with all of its seven judges – for all constitutional cases and occasionally for other significant cases. Continue reading

News: Senator Culleton’s ‘dark cloud hanging over the High Court’

Those interested in federal politics have spent the past couple of days pondering the possibility that two senators elected at the recent election were disqualified on various grounds and the possible outcomes of proceedings in the High Court potentially raising those matters. One of those senators, One Nation’s Ron Culleton, gave an interview yesterday, which reportedly included the following statement:

Under Section 33 of the constitution, writs need to be named in the name of the Queen and that clearly hasn’t been happening. So when the media jumps on this and say there’s a dark cloud myself, I would say there is a dark cloud hanging over the High Court. Until the answer comes back (advice from the Senate), I’m not sure I’m going to participate in any High Court jurisdiction. If I do, I will represent myself.

Those following up on this statement would soon discover that s. 33 of the Constitution refers to writs, but not ones from the High Court:

Whenever a vacancy happens in the House of Representatives, the Speaker shall issue his writ for the election of a new member, or if there is no Speaker or if he is absent from the Commonwealth the Governor-General in Council may issue the writ.

Section 33 is actually concerned with casual vacancies in the House of Representatives (which are resolved by by-election.) Vacancies in Senator Culleton’s upper house are dealt with by s. 15 of the Constitution, which makes no mention of writs (as such vacancies are filled by state parliaments.) Neither constitutional provision includes any requirement that process should be in the name of the Queen.

However, it is likely that Senator Culleton was actually referring to s. 33, not of the Constitution, but of the High Court of Australia Act 1979:

All writs, commissions and process issued from the High Court shall be:
(a) in the name of the Queen;
(b) under the seal of the Court…; and
(c) signed by… the Chief Executive and Principal Registrar…

In fact, Senator Culleton’s first parliamentary question, a week after an action was filed against him, concerned this very section: Continue reading

News: Vic CJ proposes Australian Court of Appeal

At this year’s national conference of the Australian Bar Association, Victorian Chief Justice Marilyn Warren, after outlining the success of Victoria’s Court of Appeal in finalising civil appeals, provocatively added:

Now taking the local level of excellence, of course it extends across the national superior courts. So what opportunities arise to market that collective excellence? An opportunity that lies before all of us as the collective superior courts of Australia is to contemplate a national appellate court.

Of course, Australia already has a national appellate court, the High Court of Australia, which, unlike the Supreme Court of the United States, can hear appeals from any Australian court on any subject. Why, therefore, call for a second national appellate court? Warren CJ gives three related reasons. Continue reading

News: Another NSW-Vic schism amongst special leave grants

It is always hard to predict the outcome of special leave applications, but one category of appeal comes close to a certainty: cases where Australian courts have divided on the meaning of a single, important statute. Earlier this year, the High Court (in a divided decision of its own) entered into a key dispute between the NSW and Victorian courts about the meaning of Australia’s ‘uniform’ evidence law, and last month the Court took on a case dealing with a second dispute between those courts about that law. Last week, the Victorian Court of Appeal decided not to follow the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal on the precise role of guilty pleas in federal sentencing, guaranteeing that the issue will reach the High Court soon. This month, the sole grant of leave ‘on the papers‘ was a pair of cases where the NSW and Victorian courts reached different views on the fault element of federal drug offences.

The Court’s new process continues to be unpredictable. For the first time since the process began, the Court held two oral hearings – these were held, unusually, in separate weeks, and yielded five more special leave grants. The Court’s written dispositions refusing leave continue to be very uninformative. One exception was the Court’s refusal of a NSW criminal appeal, which included the Court’s view that the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal was right to apply the High Court’s House ruling (requiring an error of law before a decision can be reviewed) to a trial judge decision; alas, the NSW case is (for now) suppressed, so the public is none the wiser about the nature of this ruling. Chief Justice French continues to play no role in the Court’s written dispositions, but participated in (at least) the first oral hearing.

The six matters where leave was granted are appeals from the following decisions: Continue reading

News: Re-reading Monis v the Queen

The High Court’s judgment, Monis v The Queen [2013] HCA 4, concerns the meaning and validity of the federal government’s ban on offensive postal communications. However, the case is known for many more things: the extremity of the communications sent by the defendants to bereaved families condemning the deceased’s involvement in military operations; the rare evenly divided High Court ruling, upholding the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal’s dismissal of the defendants’ pre-trial challenge to the statute’s constitutionality; Justice Dyson Heydon’s final judgment, quoting Kipling’s My Boy Jack and condemning the implied freedom of political expression as he applied it (one of the ‘great dissents’ nominated in Andrew Lynch’s edited collection); later accusations against the defendants of much more serious crimes; and, finally and most dramatically and sadly, Man Haron Monis’s killing of two people (and his own death) during the siege of Martin Place’s Lindt Cafe.

It is not surprising that the case continues to draw academic attention. The latest instance is an entire book devoted to the case. Continue reading

News: “The Castle in reverse”, a coda to DPP (Cth) v Poniatowska

A sad coda to the High Court’s decision in DPP (Cth) v Poniatowska emerged recently. Malgorzata Poniatowska has had two major litigation successes, but each has been followed by setbacks. Her first success, obtaining a historic payout for sexual harassment from her former employers in a building consultancy, was followed by her prosecution for fraud charges for allegedly failing to inform Centrelink of the commissions she earned from that consultancy. Her second success, obtaining a landmark ruling from the High Court quashing her conviction (together with many other social security prosecutions), was soon followed by a negative story on Channel 7’s Today Tonight:

Matt White: First, this evening, a legal landmark in the High Court has forced Centrelink to close a loophole that will allow people to claim welfare they shouldn’t get. An Adelaide woman has shot down Centrelink, avoiding prosecution for claiming $20,000 in single parent benefits she wasn’t entitled to. As David Richardson reports, it’s a case that has shifted the goal post, and sent the government back to the drawing board.
Reporter: Every year, Centrelink goes hunting for cheats – 4 million entitlements reviewed, 640,000 payments reduced, 3400 cases convicted. They don’t miss much – until today.
Warren Moore: Instead of the average person being the winner, you’ve got one woman taking money from the average taxpayer.
Reporter: Meet the cheat who got away: she confessed to defrauding them, then she beat them.

She responded by suing Channel 7 for defamation and, recently, lost, badly.

Continue reading

News: ‘Hey Dad!’ case one of six special leave grants

The High Court’s August round of special leave deliberations has yielded six grants of leave to appeal, following a very slow start:

  • Wednesday 24th: None out of 3 applications granted (on papers, Bell & Keane JJ)
  • Thursday 25th: None out of 7 applications granted (on papers, Nettle & Gordon JJ)
  • Tuesday 30th: None out of 8 applications granted (on papers, Bell & Gageler JJ)
  • Wednesday 31st: None out of 6 applications granted (on papers, Bell & Keane JJ)
  • Thursday 1st: 3 out of 21 applications granted (on papers, 7 Kiefel & Keane JJ (no grants),  7 Kiefel & Nettle JJ (1 grant), 7 Gageler & Gordon JJ (2 grants))
  • Friday 2nd: 3 out of 7 applications granted (oral hearings; 4 Kiefel & Nettle JJ (2 grants), 3 Gageler & Gordon JJ (1 grant)). (There was also a further matter where leave was granted and the appeal allowed, by consent of the parties.)

As usual, French CJ did not decide any special leave matters. As per recent practice, the pairs of judges assigned are no longer always geographically connected. One interesting development is just two pairs of judges were responsible for all six grants (both written and oral), with Gageler  & Gordon JJ responsible for all the criminal grants and Kiefel & Nettle JJ responsible for all the civil grants. There also appears to be a slight increase in information included with the refusals, for example Bell & Gageler JJ’s refusal of leave to Matthew and Elizabeth Pallet, campaigners in favour of medical cannabis, which indicates that their unsuccessful argument was a constitutional challenge to Victoria’s drug laws.

The six cases in which grants were made are: Continue reading

News: Claim Baden-Clay judgment sets a ‘massive precedent’

R v Baden-Clay [2016] HCA 35 is one of the High Court’s most-watched judgments, at least by non-lawyers. Indeed, this morning’s announcement of the Court’s orders in its Canberra premises was live-blogged on at least two Brisbane websites, so readers at home knew of the outcome some 15 minutes before the Court posted its judgment summary on its website. The rather brief proceeding (including other judgments and a hearing in a current appeal) was attended by friends of Baden-Clay’s victim, who told the media:

The law has acknowledged what we, who were closest to her, knew from that very morning Allison went missing — that is — that she was murdered… Today’s decision brings an end to Gerard’s attempts to smear Allison’s name. If some were in doubt as to his true nature, his behaviour after Allison disappeared and during the trial must have removed that doubt.

All of these matters were established by the jury’s verdict, but in Australia’s criminal justice system, appeal courts can sometimes second-guess the jury. In today’s judgment, the High Court firmly second-guessed the Queensland Court of Appeal’s second-guessing and also closed off all regular avenues for future second-guessing in the courts.

But some lawyers commenting on the decision have attributed more to today’s decision. Baden-Clay’s lawyer told the media: Continue reading

News: High Court rejects challenge to Australia’s common law of complicity

Today, a 6-1 majority of the High Court upheld a 6-1 majority decision of the same court a decade ago to not revisit a unanimous decision of the same court 21 years ago, whose effect is eloquently described in Gageler J’s judgment as follows:

Three men set out to rob a bank. They adopt a simple plan. One of them, the driver, is to wait in the car. The other two are to enter the bank. One is to wave a gun. The other is to put the money in a bag. The two who enter the bank encounter a security guard. The gunman shoots him and he dies. Who of the three is liable for murder? The traditional answer of the common law is that the criminal liability of each depends on the intention of each. The gunman is liable for murder if he shot the security guard intending to cause death or grievous harm…. But what if shooting to kill or cause grievous harm was never part of the plan? The gunman went too far. The gun was not meant to be loaded. The gun was meant only to frighten….  The common law has of late given a different answer. The bagman and driver need not have intended that the gunman would shoot to kill or cause grievous harm as a possible means of carrying out the plan to rob the bank. It is enough for them to be liable for murder that they foresaw the possibility that the gunman would take it upon himself to shoot to kill or cause grievous harm and that they participated in the plan to rob the bank with that foresight.

Whereas the Privy Council and the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom ruled that the ‘common law of late’  was a ‘wrong turn’, the High Court today disagreed. Continue reading

News: When the High Court went on strike

The High Court’s Gageler J will deliver a lecture at Melbourne Law School titled ‘When the High Court went on strike’. According to the blurb:

This lecture covers a little known historical episode from the early history of the High Court when the justices went ‘on strike’. This historical episode will be used as a basis for a broader exploration of the question of judicial independence.

The speech happens to coincide with the start of a period of reduced activity in the current High Court, which has nothing scheduled between 2nd September and 2nd October. The High Court’s 2016 schedule differs from all past ones since at least 1999, where the Court sat in the first two weeks of September, while having all (or nearly all) of July off. By contrast, this year, the Court sat in the final two weeks of both July and August.

Justice Gageler will present the Allen Hope Southey Memorial Lecture in the law school at 6pm on 6th September.

News: Former High Court judge rules on high profile NZ murder case

In a report published on Tuesday, former Australian High Court judge Ian Callinan found that New Zealander David Bain ‘has not proved on the balance of probabilities that he did not kill his siblings and his parents on the morning of the 20th of June 1994.’ While the judge’s career since leaving the High Court in 2007 has been characterised by government-commissioned reports (as well as sitting on an International Court of Justice dispute between Australia and East Timor), this is surely the first occasion that a retired High Court judge has played the role of judge of fact in a murder case. The Bain case, which turns on the question of whether David Bain shot his parents and three siblings at an isolated farm near their house in Dunedin (for no known motive), or whether Bain’s father committed a murder-suicide (possibly fearing revelations of abuse of his only youngest daughter) while his eldest son was on a paper run, has long divided New Zealanders. Remarkably, it has also been the subject of three controversial interventions by overseas judges. Continue reading

News: 5 new appeals under amended High Court Rules

On 1st July, amendments to the High Court’s rules took effect, including an all new Part 41 on special leave applications. Amongst other changes, the new rules consolidate the application for leave and the summary of argument into a single document (effectively halving the time for lodging all the documents from 56 days to 28 days, and subjecting the totality to a single page limit) and omit existing separate rules on unrepresented applicants and oral arguments in favour of a single rule permitting ‘any 2 justices’ to determine any applicants without an oral hearing.The explanatory memorandum states that ‘[c]onsultations on the changes have taken place with relevant professional organisations and the Special Committee of Solicitors-General.’

One result of the new rules is that there is no longer any public indication as to whether a particular applicant for special leave was represented or unrepresented (as all applications are now determined under new rule 41.08.1.) Rather, all we know is that there were:

  • 32 matters determined without a hearing (2 grants, 30 rejections), heard by Nettle & Gordon JJ (10 matters), Gageler & Gordon JJ (5 matters), Kiefel & Keane JJ (7 matters), Kiefel & Nettle JJ (4 matters) and Bell & Gageler JJ (5 matters), shaking up the previous wholly geographical pairings of judges. French CJ continues to play no role in these determinations.
  • 8 matters determined with a hearing (4 grants, 4 rejections), held in Brisbane (even though none of the matters heard were from Queensland.)

Although the Court’s  2016 calendar describes today is a ‘special leave date’,  no leave applications seem to be listed for determination today. Under the Court’s new approach, dedicated special leave dates are becoming a thing of the past, as, increasingly, are Court sittings in Australia’s two largest cities.

The five judgments that will now be reviewed in the second half of this year by the apex Court are: Continue reading

News: What happened after Smith v WA [2014] HCA 3?

In Smith v WA [2014] HCA 3, the High Court unanimously ordered the Western Australian Court of Appeal to reconsider an appeal by a man who sought to have his conviction for indecent dealing with a child set aside because of a note found in the jury room after the verdict that stated ‘I have been physically coerced by a fellow juror to change my plea to be aligned with the majority vote. This has made my ability to perform my duty as a juror on this panel’. The High Court held:

The shadow of injustice cast on the verdict by the note cannot be dismissed on the basis that the note itself and the paucity of evidence of its provenance are insufficient to create a suspicion that, as a matter of fact, the author of the note was overborne in the performance of his duties as a juror.

The Court observed that the identity of the author could be readily discerned, the note’s true meaning could be readily resolved by asking the author, that a wide-ranging and intrusive inquiry would not ‘necessarily’ follow and that the practicality of any inquiry, given the time since the early 2012 trial, is a matter for the Court of Appeal. Nearly two-and-a-half years later, a judgment published today by the WA court reveals how these predictions played out and how the appeal stands (for now.) Continue reading

The High Court and the facts of sentencing: Nguyen v R and Betts v R

Australia’s law students are currently sitting their first semester exams. Some of them might be examining hypotheticals like this one:

D shot and wounded the V, who was a police officer, while V was lawfully executing a search warrant in company with other police officers on premises in close proximity to D’s home. The shot struck V in the arm, thereby causing him a serious but non-fatal gunshot wound. In the course of the fire-fight which ensued, one of the other police officers fired a shot which was intended for D, but which unfortunately instead hit V in the neck, thereby inflicting a wound from which he later died. Assume that when D fired at V, D honestly believed that V was someone posing as a police officer who was intent on robbing the D and might have posed a serious risk to the D’s safety.

That exam question could earn the examiner congratulations for her inventiveness, but the next one would probably earn her a meeting with her Dean:

D moved to stab V in the chest but she asked him not to stab her there and he rolled her over and stabbed her a number of times in the back. V believed her only chance to escape was to calm D and weaken him. She said, “If we are going to do this together, then I should have a turn with the knife.” The tip of the knife D then had had broken and was embedded in V’s back so D grabbed another knife from the kitchen, handed it to V and said “Okay” and lay on his back. V stabbed D in the stomach, giving an extra shove to make sure the knife was in deep and she twisted it. It appeared that some of D’s intestines came out, D remarking “That was a good one.”

Adding further details – that D was a former contest on Australian Survivor and that, during D’s attack, a real estate agent entered the flat to open it for inspection, saw ‘red liquid’ everywhere, and left, seemingly without calling the police – may well leave the lecturer without a job. But, as Mark Twain is reputed to have said, ‘the difference between fact and fiction is that fiction must be believable.’ Or, as the late Han Solo said, ‘it’s true, all of it’.

The victims of crime in the above two cases were Bill Crews, a 26 year-old police constable whose parents recounted to the coroner their surprise and pride when their son told them three years earlier that he had got in to the police force and then sat and watched video of his last moments, and Samantha Holland, aged 23 at the time, who was stabbed at least 26 times before she escaped over a balcony and will suffer physical and psychological scars for life, and who sobbed in court as her ex-boyfriend was sentenced. The defendants were Phillip Nguyen, then 55, whose first wife was murdered a decade earlier and whose second marriage failed while he was on remand for killing Crews, and Joel Betts, then 30, a victim of childhood sexual abuse and violence who faces a lifetime of incontinence due to the bowel injury he incurred while stabbing Holland. Each recently lost their final appeals in the High Court. Because both defendants pleaded guilty, the Court’s task was not the criminal law student’s task of applying the rules of criminal responsibility to these strange facts. Rather, the nation’s top judges faced an infinitely harder task: assessing whether the punishment each offender was given fitted their unusual crimes. Continue reading

News: Latest special leave cycle yields five new appeals

The past month has produced five grants of special leave, as follows:

  • 25th May (non-oral): 2 grants, no refusals (Nettle & Gordon JJ)
  • 9th June (non-oral; 8 unrepresented matters, 1 represented): no grants, 9 refusals (Nettle & Gordon JJ)
  • 15th June (non-oral; 11 unrepresented, 10 represented): no grants, 21 refusals (Kiefel & Keane JJ)
  • 17th June (non-oral, 6 unrepresented, 4 represented, 1 unknown): 1 grant, 10 refusals (Bell & Gageler JJ)
  • 17th June (oral): 2 grants, 4 refusals

This month continues the previous trend of non-oral matters being divided amongst three pairs of geographically linked judges, i.e. the Victorian judges (Nettle & Gordon JJ), the Queensland judges (Kiefel & Keane JJ, who received a double load this month) and the NSW/ACT judges (Bell & Gageler JJ), with French CJ again not participating in any non-oral leave matters. Presumably, these pairings suit practical arrangements within the Court, but they also potentially skew leave grants, to the extent that these various pairs see things eye to eye more than other pairs (or French CJ.) The oral matters continue to also be heard by pairs of judges (rather than three, as might be expected if two judges had previously disagreed on the written merits), but the oral pairs don’t match the non-oral ones. This month also sees the Court’s listings all referring to ‘matters for determination’, rather than for publication of reasons or not, and hence no longer indicating results in advance of the Court’s sittings.

The five matters granted leave to appeal are as follows: Continue reading

Betts v The Queen

The High Court has dismissed an appeal against a sentencing decision of the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal after it allowed an appeal against sentence because of errors in the characterisation of aggravating factors. The appellant was convicted of attempted murder and kidnapping following a murder-suicide attempt on his former partner, in which he repeatedly stabbed her over a prolonged period of time, and sentenced to 16 years imprisonment with a non-parole period of 11 years. Continue reading

Alqudsi v The Queen

The High Court has dismissed a motion on a cause removed from the New South Wales Supreme Court relating to constitutional requirements for trials in the context of a trial for terrorism recruitment offences. The applicant is charged with seven offences against s 7(1)(e) of the Crimes (Foreign Incursions and Recruitment) Act 1978 (Cth), which makes it an offence for a person to give money, goods or services to a person or body for the purpose of supporting or promoting the commission of an incursion into a foreign country to engage in hostilities (on which see also s 6 of the Act). Pursuant to s 132 of the Criminal Procedure Act 1986 (NSW), the applicant made a motion to be tried by a judge only. Section 80 of the Commonwealth Constitution, however, provides that trials on indictment for Commonwealth offences ‘shall be by jury’. Following an application by the Commonwealth Attorney-General, French CJ ordered that part of the cause be removed into the High Court to determine the following question:

Are ss 132(1) to (6) of the Criminal Procedure Act 1986 (NSW) incapable of being applied to the Applicant’s trial by s 68 of the Judiciary Act 1903 (Cth) because their application would be inconsistent with s 80 of the Constitution?

Continue reading

News: Wigs in the High Court

At the start of this month, the judges of Victoria’s Supreme Court all stopped wearing wigs. A similar (but broader) decision was made by the High Court in 1988:

As of today, Tuesday, 2 August, the Chief Justice and Justices of the High Court of Australia will wear black gowns when sitting in court instead of the traditional attire of a robe, jabot and wig.

While the Victorian decision was a statutory determination by the state’s Chief Justice, the High Court’s decision was not made under any statute and involved no new rules or practice directions; the Court’s seven judges simply all entered the courtroom wigless, as Murphy J and (for a time) Starke J had individually decided in the past. The Court’s press release was careful to disclaim any implications for other Australian courts:

This decision is not intended to establish a model for other courts. The fact that the High Court is a constitutional and appellate court and not a trial court has been significant in the decision to alter the dress. Different considerations may well apply to other courts. The nature of their work, particularly that of trial courts, differs from that of the High Court.

By contrast, in the case of barristers’ wigs, decisions by other Australian courts, including this week’s direction from Victoria’s common law division that barristers appearing there must do so without wigs, can directly affect what barristers wear in the High Court.
Continue reading

News: Uber’s legality turns on 1929 High Court decision

Wednesday’s ruling by Victoria’s County Court quashing the conviction of an Uber driver in a test prosecution has been reported as confirming the legality of the Uber X service in Victoria, avoiding the need for drivers and vehicle owners to obtain expensive commercial licenses. A curiosity of this week’s ruling is the role of,a High Court decision on the Uber X of 1929 Victoria (and the first ever High Court judgment of Justice Owen Dixon.)

In Blyth v Hudson [1929] HCA 3, the High Court considered the legality of a transport service from Geelong to Melbourne. The driver, George Hudson, who had been refused a commercial licence to operate a ‘motor omnibus‘ – a service for ‘carrying passengers for reward at separate and distinct fares for each passenger’ – struck a deal with the Geelong Motor Tourist Bureau, which arranged for shopkeepers to sell tickets for his service and then pay him a lump sum to drive anyone who showed up with a ticket. When he was prosecuted by William Blyth (the Country Roads Board’s Chief Inspector,) Victoria’s Supreme Court ruled that the definition of motor omnibus should be read strictly so that it didn’t cover fares paid to intermediaries, but the High Court (including Dixon J) disagreed, prophetically emphasising the need for flexibility to effectively regulate a fast-changing sector of the economy: Continue reading

News: New special leave process yields five new appeals

Last Friday was the High Court’s official special leave day for May. However, there were no special leave hearings that day and no determinations either. Rather, May special leaves were determined on three days:

  • Two Thursdays ago, when 2 matters received leave and 11 (including 4 unrepresented matters) were refused, all decided on the papers by Nettle & Gordon JJ.
  • Last Thursday, when 1 matter received leave and 13 (including 6 unrepresented matters) were refused, all on the papers by Bell & Gageler JJ.
  • This Monday, when 2 matters received leave and 5 were refused, all after listed oral hearings.

So, that is a total of 5 grants and 29 rejections, out of 7 oral hearings, 17 represented non-oral matters and 10 unrepresented non-oral matters.

This month, we have learnt a little more about the Court’s new process. Continue reading

News: Court accused of undermining suppression order

Sunday’s Northern Territorian included the following story (HT: Twitter @dunlop_craig):

THE High Court has published, and later removed, a document which bares the name of an alleged Northern Territory paedophile, whose identity is the subject of an NT Supreme Court suppression order. The document, a case chronology, was downloaded repeatedly by the NT News last week, but was switched out with a redacted version late on Saturday night, around the time inquiries were sent to court staff.

The NT News states that the case was IMM v R, a very significant ruling on Australia’s uniform evidence law where the Court issued a complex judgment last week. Like most High Court evidence law cases, the facts involved alleged child sexual abuse and the adult defendant’s name was most likely suppressed to protect the identity of the complainant. That being said, the Court did not suppress the man’s name when the case was initially listed for a special leave hearing and the court list for that day (which is still hosted by the Court but not hyperlinked from the Court’s website) still contains his surname. [EDIT: see the first comment below.]

The ‘chronology’ mentioned in the report is likely to be the one supplied by the appellant and published (now without the defendant’s name) by the Court on its website here. Continue reading

News: Reading the special tea leaves

We are now nearly two months into the High Court’s new process for determining special leave applications. Pending a fuller review after Friday’s hearings, a potential pattern has emerged that may reveal, a day in advance of the Court’s formal ruling, whether cases that have been listed for orders without an oral hearing will be granted special leave. If correct, then that means that there is a sign this evening that special leave will be granted tomorrow morning in the high profile appeal by Queensland prosecutors against an appellate ruling by that state’s Court of Appeal reducing Gerard Baden Clay’s conviction for murder to manslaughter. Continue reading

News: Court ruling on Senate voting this Friday

Yesterday’s High Court’s judgment delivery notification service (an email list) includes the following announcement:

Please be advised that the High Court will deliver the following judgments:

Friday, 13 May 2016 at 10:00 am in Court No. 2 Parkes Place, Canberra

Day v Australian Electoral Officer for the State of South Australia & Anor (S77/2016)

Madden & Ors v. Australian Electoral Officer for the State of Tasmania & Ors (S109/2016)

These judgments are a pair of constitutional challenges by Senator Bob Day and Tasmanian senate candidate Peter Madden (both of the Family First Party) to amendments made to the Commonwealth Electoral Act in March 2016 to some aspects of the system for voting for senators. A successful challenge would (most likely) mean that the coming federal election would be governed by the previous rules for Senate voting, which have been criticised for permitting candidates with little direct support to be elected through complex deals with other parties about how ‘above the line’ votes for particular parties are dealt with. Such a ruling would be one of the apex court’s most dramatic recent interventions in national politics.

There has been no shortage of detailed analysis of the arguments put forward by Day and Madden. Most predict that the challenge will fail because of the weakness of the arguments put forward. In my view, the Court’s own conduct since the hearing also strongly suggests that the challenge will fail.  Continue reading

News: Congratulations to Katy Barnett

Hamish Michael Thompson was born Friday, weighing 3.3kg, with a fresh dose of immunity, but, disturbingly for his parents Katy and Scott, greatly reduced incentive to settle. Particular congratulations are due to Katy Barnett, who recently won the Barbara Falk prize for excellence in teaching and has written books on Accounting for Profit for Breach of Contract, Remedies in Private Law (with Sirko Harder) and a dystopian science fiction novel, The Earth Below. Somehow she did all of that while editing this blog. We wish the first ever Opinions on High baby and his family well.

News: High Court refuses to overrule itself on advocates’ immunity

Yesterday, in Attwells v Jackson Lalic Lawyers Pty Limited [2016] HCA 16, a majority of the High Court upheld the appeal of a man who wanted to sue his lawyers for negligence over advice they gave him that led him to settle a dispute about a bank guarantee that ended up being very costly for him. However, while refusing to extend advocates’ immunity to work that leads to an out-of-court settlement, the Court also unanimously refused to reopen two earlier decisions where majorities of previous High Court benches had held that advocates are generally immune from civil actions concerning the advice they give in relation to court proceedings that proceed to judgment. While yesterday’s entire ruling will surely be closely studied by private lawyers, a point of more general significance is the Court’s reasons for not reconsidering its earlier decisions. As the Court noted yesterday, it has ‘undoubted authority’ to overrule itself, a power it last exercised in 2013 (as discussed here by Katy Barnett).

However, that doesn’t mean that it will overrule itself, even in situations where the current Court would now develop the law differently. Continue reading

News: Few appeal grants as Court’s new special leave process takes shape

A month ago (or so), the High Court’s registrar announced changes to the Court’s practice on special leave applications, including filtering all applications (rather than just applications by unrepresented litigants) first on the papers, and only proceeding to an oral hearing with some of them. The Court’s announcement was short on details and none have been forthcoming, but there is now a month of practice to consider. The headline is that there are now far fewer oral special leave hearings. Just four were listed for Friday’s special leave day, all in the Court’s Melbourne registry (although two were heard by video link.) And only one of those matters was granted special leave. By comparison, there were eighteen cases (with six grants) heard on March’s special leave day (although some were multiple applications concerning the same matter) and seventeen (with five grants) this time a year ago.

So, what has happened to all the other special leave matters?  Continue reading

News: Obeid’s suppressed High Court application

Two judgments published yesterday by Gageler J reveal that previously suppressed High Court events in mid-January involved an application by former NSW Legislative Councillor Eddie Obeid to delay and perhaps ultimately prevent his trial on a charge of misconduct in public office. In  the first of yesterday’s judgments, Obeid v The Queen [2016] HCA 9, Gageler J explained his reasons for refusing Obeid’s request to stay his trial until the High Court had considered his application for special leave to appeal the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal’s rejection of his pre-trial arguments (that his parliamentary position at the time of the alleged public misconduct either fell outside of the scope of the offence charged or meant that only the Legislative Council could try it.) In the second, Obeid v The Queen [No 2] [2016] HCA 10, Gageler J explained why both the fact of Obeid’s application for special leave and a stay and Gageler J’s ruling rejecting the stay were not published by the High Court until now: it was because Gageler J himself suppressed that information (at the ex-politician’s request.)That explains why the relevant court list only revealed that an application for an application for a non-publication order was to be heard, but not who made the application or what it was about.

The two sets of reasons for judgment from Gageler J explain the events and his reasoning in considerable and very useful detail. Continue reading

News: Fast track for complicity law challenge

Australian criminal defence lawyers have wasted no time responding to February’s UK ruling overturning the common law rule in England and some other countries that deemed anyone engaged in a criminal enterprise liable for any crimes committed by their colleagues, no matter how serious, if they foresaw the mere possibility that the crime would occur. A challenge to Australia’s similar common law (left untouched by the English decision) is already before the High Court in Smith v the Queen, a South Australian matter that was referred for argument before an expanded High Court bench just a week before the UK judgment. Smith’s 20-page submissions, lodged last week, spend just two pages on the issue that was the subject of the referral (the role of intoxication in such cases, a matter already before the Court in an appeal by Smith’s co-defendant.) Rather, the balance was devoted to the following new question:

Should the doctrine known as “extended joint enterprise”, enunciated in McAuliffe v The Queen (1995) 183 CLR 108, be reconsidered and revised or abandoned, in light of the decision of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in R v Jogee [2016] 2 WLR 681?

Whether the High Court actually considers this question turns on multiple exercises of the Court’s discretion, including whether or not Smith can amend his earlier application for special leave to appeal, whether special leave will be granted and whether Smith can ask the Court to reconsider  its earlier rulings on this issue.

In many ways, this challenge resembles the Court’s current reconsideration of advocates’ immunity to negligence actions, another commonly criticised part of the common law. Continue reading

News: Chief Justice announces early resignation

The ‘News Room’ of the High Court’s website contains the following announcement:

Retirement of Chief Justice
The Chief Justice of the High Court has advised the Prime Minister of his intention to resign from office with effect from midnight on 29 January 2017. The resignation will take effect a few weeks ahead of the Chief Justice’s 70th birthday on 19 March 2017 in order that his successor may take up office at the commencement of the 2017 sittings on 30 January 2017.
Andrew Phelan.
Chief Executive & Principal Registrar. 23 Mar 2016

The Chief Justice’s resignation comes 47 days before the date mandated by the Constitution.

The publication of the Chief Justice’s retirement plan is a welcome development Continue reading

News: The High Court’s work during federal elections

An election is of obvious interest to the legislature and executive. However, it is also increasingly relevant to the work of the government’s third branch. Each of the last three federal elections has required the Court to resolve complex questions urgently:

  • two months prior to the 2007 election, the Court struck down legislation from 2006 barring all prisoners from voting.
  • two weeks before the 2010 election, the Court struck down legislation from 2006 removing the 7 day ‘statutory grace period’ allowing people to enrol after an election is called.
  • five months after the 2013 election, Hayne J, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns,  declared the election of Western Australian senators void due to the loss of 1370 ballot papers.

The 2015 election, whenever it occurs, will continue this trend.

So far, two pre-election High Court cases have been announced. Continue reading

News: Court announces fewer oral hearings for special leave applications

The ‘News Room’ heading on the High Court’s website contains a notice from the Court’s Chief Executive titled ‘Changes to Special Leave’ that is mostly devoted to the following change:

In represented applications, a Panel of Justices will determine in the first place whether an oral hearing is warranted. If the Panel considers that no oral hearing is required, the application will be granted or refused special leave on the papers. If an oral hearing is required, the application will be listed for hearing as soon as practicable.

This announcement continues a decades long trend away from oral hearings in the Court’s function of determining its own appellate docket and brings the Court’s practices closer those in comparable courts in the UK, Canada and the US. In previous years, the Court moved from five-judge benches to three-judge and then the current two-judge benches, and generally stopped giving oral hearings to self-represented applicants. The current announcement indicates that there will now be up to two hearings for all special leave applications, one on the papers and then a possible second oral hearing. It seems that the first non-oral hearing will always involve a decision on whether or not to proceed to an oral hearing and, if there is to be no oral hearing, will also determine whether or not special leave will be granted.

There are a number of aspects of this new process that are not entirely clear from the notice. Continue reading

News: Six new cases as Morcombe matter ends

Friday’s High Court special leave hearings received particular attention in Queensland, with the Court rejecting an application for leave to appeal by Brett Cowan, who was convicted of murdering Sunshine Coast teenager Daniel Morcombe in 2011. The case drew attention because of the tragedy of a 13-year old’s violent death, the publicity given to police suspicions about Cowan at the coronial inquest, the oddity that Cowan was one of two otherwise unrelated child sex offenders who may have been in the vicinity when Morcombe vanished, and the playing out of the dispute about the Chief Justiceship of Tim Carmody during Cowan’s state appeal. Today’s hearing was attended by Morcombe’s parents, who were relieved that the matter was at an end and reportedly critical of the appeal process. However, the national Court’s refusal of leave will disappoint those who hoped it would revisit its earlier support for complex police stings such as the one used to obtain admissions from Cowan, especially given the recent revisiting of such operations by the Supreme Court of Canada, where the method originated.

The High Court nevertheless granted leave to appeal six cases, all of which are especially interesting: Continue reading

News: Gageler J on Victoria’s missing rights Charter

Today, the High Court unanimously rejected an appeal by two anonymous Victorian police officers who argued that they should not be publicly examined by Victoria’s anti-corruption commission about an alleged assault of a detainee in a Ballarat police station because they had been notified that they may be prosecuted for the assault. The Court held that its recent decisions on a common law rule obscurely named the ‘companion principle’, which prevents executive action that interferes with the accusatorial process unless it is allowed by clear legislative language, does not apply to people who are not yet formally charged with an offence. Six of the Court’s seven judges explained their reasons in the usual short format that characterises the French court. But Gageler J added a more interesting concurrence discussing a statute the majority didn’t mention: Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006. This prompts the question: why wasn’t Victoria’s landmark human rights statute addressed by the balance of Australia’s peak court in a major decision involving the human rights of Victorians under a Victorian law? Continue reading

News: Australian criminal law took a ‘wrong turn’, says UK’s top court

In a long-awaited and unusual joint judgment of two peak courts, the UK Supreme Court and the Privy Council, five judges yesterday ruled that the common law took a ‘wrong turn’ on the criminal law of complicity at least 19 years ago.The courts heard appeals by people convicted of murder after their partners in crimes –  respectively, an English domestic assault and a Jamaican taxi robbery –  instead stabbed the intended victims. At issue were rulings by the Privy Council in 1985 and the House of Lords in 1997, building on decisions by Australia’s High Court from 1980,  that such defendants could be convicted of murder if they were merely aware that their accomplices ‘might’ murder someone in the course of another crime. Yesterday’s unanimous judgment found that the twin decisions misunderstood the earlier authority, disregarded principle and, most disturbingly, ‘bring the striking anomaly of requiring a lower mental threshold for guilt in the case of the accessory’ – the accomplices’ awareness of the possibility of a murder -‘ than in the case of the principal’- the stabbers’ intent to cause serious harm. Accordingly, they overruled the 1985 and 1997 decisions, detailed a new narrower standard for liability and outlined ground rules for reviewing decades of potentially wrong convictions.

But yesterday’s ruling does not apply in Australia. Continue reading

News: A surprise death in a national court

Yesterday’s news of the death of United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia will dismay many, including those who agree with his views and many others who simply enjoyed reading his eloquent and witty judgments. The news also inserts a dramatic new dynamic into United States politics, given the Court’s outsized role in American political life, the sharing of the appointing role between an elected executive and a legislative house and Scalia J’s position as part of a recognisable (although far from invariable) conservative majority in the Court’s many 5-4 decisions. In all these respects, Australia differs from America. Indeed, on the latter point, as UNSW’s Professors Lynch and Williams reported last Friday at the Gilbert & Tobin Constitutional Law Conference, the current High Court now has fewer dissenting judgments than ever.

Deaths of sitting High Court judges are now a rarity, in part because (unlike in the US), appointments of Australian judges are no longer for life. While the last death of a sitting judge was Lionel Murphy’s in 1986, it was not a shock, coming six months after the announcement that he was suffering from inoperable colon cancer. Rather, the most recent surprise death was that of Keith Aickin in 1982, Continue reading

News: Slow start to special leave grants in 2016

The Court today held its first special leave hearings for 2016, in its Sydney and Canberra registries. All the Sydney applications were rejected, while in Canberra, the Court granted special leave in just one matter and also referred a pair of appeals to the full court [EDIT: connected to a matter granted special leave in November]. Matters where leave was refused include two further pre-trial challenges by alleged foreign incursion promoter, Hamid Alqudsi, and a high profile appeal by a farmer who lost his organic certification when genetically modified crops grown by his neighbour contaminated his land.

The lower court decisions to be considered by the Court are: Continue reading

News: Quick end to Alqudsi’s challenge to mandatory jury trials

Yesterday’s new decision on civil procedure and insurers is not the only significant ruling of the High Court this week. Wednesday’s day-long hearing of a pre-trial application by accused promoter of foreign incursions, Hamdi Alqudsi, ended with the following statement by French CJ:

At least a majority of the Court is of the opinion that the following order should be made:
1. The question “Are ss 132(1) to (6) of the Criminal Procedure Act 1986 (NSW) incapable of being applied to the Applicant’s trial by s 68 of the Judiciary Act 1903 (Cth) because their application would be inconsistent with s 80 of the Constitution”, should be answered “Yes”.
2. The motion is dismissed.
The reasons of the Court will be published at a later date.

The effect of these orders is that Alqudsi’s trial will be by a jury of his peers, rather than by judge alone as he preferred. The orders also strongly suggest a rejection by a majority of the High Court of an effort by Alqudsi, broadly supported by the Commonwealth and four states, to overturn or limit a thirty-year old 3-2 ruling by the High Court that effectively gave prosecutors, but not courts or defendants, the power to opt for a judge-alone trial of serious federal crimes.The Court’s majority holding in 1986’s Brown, although certainly a plausible reading of the bare text of s80 of the Constitution, is reviled by many as a perversion of one of the Constitution’s few apparent protections of human rights. However, we won’t know quite what the Court has said about s80 until the Court’s reasons emerge in next month or so.

Of more immediate interest is why the High Court opted to make its orders immediately Continue reading

News: Summarising High Court judgments

Wednesday saw the High Court’s first decision of 2016, concerning one of the most controversial issues in Australia: offshore immigration detention. The judgment is a blockbuster, consisting of five judgments and over 42000 words (not including the 339 footnotes), answering (or declining to answer) a special case consisting of fourteen multi-part questions. As is the Court’s practice since late 2002, the judgment was accompanied (and, online, preceded) by a one-page judgment summary, describing the proceedings and, in a single paragraph, its outcome:

The Court held, by majority, that the plaintiff was not entitled to the declaration sought. The conduct of the Commonwealth in signing the second MOU with Nauru was authorised by s 61 of the Constitution. The Court further held that the conduct of the Commonwealth in giving effect to the second MOU (including by entry into the Administrative Arrangements and the Transfield Contract) was authorised by s 198AHA of the Act, which is a valid law of the Commonwealth.

It is likely that this summary was responsible for speedy and accurate media reports that the challenge to the ‘Nauru solution’ had failed, in turn prompting fresh political debate about whether the federal parliament or executive should maintain or end the regime, and specifically the fate of 267 asylum seekers slated to return to Nauru.

However, as The Guardian observed on Wednesday evening, ‘High court decisions are not football matches: it’s not always clear who has won and by how much.’ Continue reading

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:

APPLICATION FOR NON-PUBLICATION
ORDERS
[NAME SUPPRESSED] v THE QUEEN

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

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

News: Counting High Court judgments

Today, the High Court issued its final judgment for 2015, number 53 in the media neutral citation list, one more than last year. Looking back over the Court’s judgments published on Austlii, these numbers are amongst the Court’s lowest. Out of the Court’s 113 years, there have been only fifteen with fewer than 53 (media neutral citation) judgments: 1903 (3), 1926 (52), 1928 (51), 1929 (46), 1930 (52), 1939 (41), 1940 (46), 1941 (43), 1942 (40), 1943 (50), 1944 (42), 1948 (50), 1983 (47), 2010 (49) and 2014 (52). The majority of these have ready explanations  – the Court’s truncated first year and the depression and war years – that the more recent years lack.

But such raw counts can easily mislead, as not all published judgments are equal. Continue reading

Secret Votes in the High Court: Smith v The Queen

 To His Honour, The jury is still not in total agreeance.

– First formal vote was [redacted] for [redacted] against (Guilty)
– Second formal vote was [redacted] for [redacted] against

Thank you.

It was 4:30pm on a summer Monday afternoon in early 2014. Leslie Smith’s jury had been deliberating since 11am the previous Friday, with a generous break over the weekend. Asked if an 11:1 verdict would solve the impasse, the jury foreman said ‘[y]ou could probably give us about half an hour and we can [indistinct].’ It took them just eighteen minutes to return a majority verdict, so they were on their way home by 5pm.

In Smith v R [2015] HCA 27, the High Court considered whether the trial judge should have publicly divulged the full contents of the jury’s note before he allowed them to reach the verdict that started Smith’s five year sentence and ended a twenty-five year journey by the woman who said he had raped her.

A secret struggle

She said that she was calling from a public phone box and sounded distressed. She told [her boyfriend] that she had had to get out of [Leslie Smith]’s apartment. He could hear the sound of a motorbike in the background. Ms B told him that she would meet him in town.

It was 11:30pm on an autumn night in 1989 when his sixteen year old girlfriend called. He didn’t see her until the next morning. Afterwards, at Townsville’s casino, where he and Smith worked, Smith wanted to ‘explain’, but he said that there was no need. His girlfriend had told him not to be angry at Smith or to blame him. She was ‘fine’. Six months passed before she told him that Smith had dragged her onto his motorbike that night and raped her at his flat. He didn’t believe her. Nor did anyone else she told that year. It was another 18 years before she went to the police, aged 34.

Until recently, a case like this would never have come to trial.  Continue reading

News: Four more cases get special leave

In sittings today in Melbourne and Sydney, the High Court held its final special leave hearings for 2015, allowing appeals from the following four cases to proceed to the national apex court:

  • Betts v R [2015] NSWCCA 39, a sentencing appeal concerning an horrific instance of domestic violence, where Betts stabbed his former partner repeatedly over a lengthy period when she arrived at their flat to remove her belongings, intending that both would die together. The NSW Court of Criminal Appeal rejected Betts’s arguments that his offence was not aggravated by the extent of his partner’s injuries and was mitigated by his own extensive deliberate self-injuries (including injuries caused by his partner with his consent), but accepted his arguments that the trial judge wrongly aggravated his sentence because of his partner’s vulnerability and wrongly failed to mitigate his head sentence due to prison being especially onerous for him given his permanent self-injuries. However, the Court nevertheless let his sixteen-year sentence stand given the seriousness of his offending.
  • Cosmopolitan Hotel (Vic) v Crown Melbourne Limited [2014] VSCA 353, concerning a refusal by Crown to renew two leases at its Southbank Entertainment precinct, despite the tenant having been required to extensively renovate the premises in order to obtain an earlier renewal of the lease. The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal had found that a statement by Crown employees that it would ‘look after’ the tenants at the next renewal if the renovations were high quality was enforceable as a collateral contract. Victoria’s Court of Appeal held that a Supreme Court judge rightly overturned this finding on the basis that the the statement was not intended to be a promise and was too vague to enforce, but nevertheless remitted the case to the Tribunal to determine what remedy (short of renewing the lease or compensating the tenants for all the profits they might have made) Crown should give the tenants for breaking its promise to look after them.
  • Deal v Kodakkathanath [2015] VSCA 191, an appeal against the failure of a compensation claim by a primary school teacher for injuries to her knee that she sustained when she fell off a small step-ladder while removing unwieldy paper artworks from a wall. The majority held that, although the trial judge’s rejection of her claim that the school breached an occupational health and safety regulation concerning ‘hazardous manual handling tasks’ was premature, inadequately explained and involved some misreadings of the statute, it was nevertheless correct because that regulation did not cover injuries caused by falls.
  • R v Nguyen [2013] NSWCCA 195, an appeal concerning what were described as ‘unusual, even unique, factual circumstances’ presenting ‘a challenging sentencing exercise’ – the fatal shooting of one plain clothes police officer by another in response to a shot fired by Nguyen in excessive self-defence. The NSW Court of Criminal Appeal held that the trial judge was wrong to find that Nguyen’s offending was mitigated by his mistaken belief that the cops (who were executing a search warrant) were robbers, as that fact was already implicit in Nguyen’s conviction for manslaughter (rather than murder), and also that the trial judge was wrong to give Nguyen wholly concurrent sentences for the shot he personally fired (which wounded the police officer’s arm) and the shot the other police office fired (which killed the police officer), as each involved distinct consequences and criminality. Describing his offence as ‘a most serious example of the crime of manslaughter’ and noting the need to deter crimes against the police, the appeal court raised Nguyen’s total sentence from nine years and six months to sixteen years and two months.

News: Ken Parish on the tragedies surrounding Melbourne v R [1999] HCA 32

Legal academic Ken Parish has a post at Club Troppo marking the death of Roy Melbourne, the defendant in a 1999 High Court criminal appeal. The post is an especially poignant one, because Melbourne was convicted of murdering Parish’s mother-in-law, who was minding Parish’s daughter while they shopped for her seventh birthday present.

Parish’s post is a profound insight into the impact of High Court appeals (amongst other things) on people affected by tragedy. Parish recounts:

When the jury’s guilty verdict was delivered I was surprised to find myself sobbing uncontrollably, not through sorrow but relief that this part of our ordeal was over and we could get on with grieving and putting our lives back together. However I was wrong about that last part. Melbourne appealed unsuccessfully to the Court of Appeal and then again to the High Court. Special leave was granted but the substantive appeal failed, although only by a margin of 3:2. The legal ordeal lasted until August 1999.

And he also notes that the description of Melbourne’s crime by McHugh J (and also Callinan J) in the High Court appeal understated the horror of the event, including the fact that it took place in the presence of Parish’s daughter. These awful details stand in sharp contrast to the somewhat dry issue that was debated in the High Court: whether the jury should have been directed that Melbourne’s clean record for the 60-odd years prior to his crime (apart from a drink-driving conviction) was relevant to determining whether or not to believe his statements immediately after the killing, including not recalling the killing, believing that Parish’s mother-in-law was harassing him with late-night noises (actually a defective sprinkler system) and his medical history. A majority of the Court held that the direction was not needed, with Kirby J and Callinan J dissenting.

The most moving part of Parish’s post is his own response to Melbourne’s death, two weeks after he voluntarily returned to prison from parole:

This morning I received a phone call from a detective from the Major Crime Squad. Melbourne was found dead in his cell last night. The detective was careful in what he said, but it sounds like he committed suicide. After a few moments of shocked silence I thanked him and remarked that I almost felt sorry for him, though not quite. But I do feel sorry and so does Jenny Parish. What a dreadful tragedy from beginning to end, for everyone involved including a lonely embittered old man named Roy Melbourne. I’ve been sobbing again today, not out of relief this time but from grief for all that has been lost.

In a comment, Parish adds that Melbourne’s death reportedly followed his return from work release after a law and order controversy in the Northern Territory, which Parish had criticised in an earlier post.

News: Predictable special leave outcomes

Predicting which cases will get special leave to the High Court is generally difficult. Last month, two Victorian judges refused an injunction to preserve the subject-matter of a case that was the subject of a special leave application, stating that ‘we are not persuaded that the application for special leave enjoys sufficient prospects of success to warrant a stay’. The High Court granted special leave in that matter last Friday. But it is possible to make strong predictions during the hearing itself. For example, a clue came during the applicant’s argument that the case ‘is a matter of real importance’ when Keane J interrupted to say ‘I do not think you need to worry about how important it is.’ The applicant promptly stopped his argument, correctly predicting that special leave would be granted. This was confirmed when, at the conclusion of the respondent’s argument, French CJ said that ‘we need not trouble’ the applicant for a reply. An even clearer sign of success is when the High Court does not call on the applicant at all, for example in this matter in October.

More unusually, in two matters this month, a lawyer faced the prospect of arguing for a special leave result after the Court had already resolved the matter against his client. Continue reading

News: Six new administrative and criminal law cases

In sittings in Canberra and Sydney yesterday, the High Court granted special leave to appeal six decisions, consisting of two administrative law matters and four criminal law ones. As well, in the special leave hearing concerning R & M v IBAC, discussed here, French CJ continued the order Nettle J gave  suppressing the names of the two police officers who IBAC wants to publicly examine ‘until further order’, despite Nettle J’s earlier expressed ‘doubts as to whether publication of the name of either applicant at this stage of the proceeding would give rise to any real risk of prejudice to a fair trial, when and if they are ever charged with any offences arising out of the subject matter of the inquiry’.

The cases where the High Court will hear appeals (most likely early next year) are:

Continue reading

News: Special leave granted on solicitor’s duty to will beneficiary

Yesterday, separate from the Court’s usual special leave schedule, the High Court granted special leave to appeal a ruling of the full court of the Supreme Court of Tasmania decided three months ago. (HT: Joel Townsend.) Having recently granted special leave in a NSW case to reconsider the scope and existence of advocates’ immunity from negligence suits in respect of their court work, the new Tasmanian grant raises the scope of solicitors’ liability in negligence for their non-court work, specifically their duty to the beneficiaries of wills they prepare.  Continue reading

News: Nettle J on open justice in Victoria

A procedural hearing on Tuesday hinted at Nettle J’s views on open justice in Victoria, an issue that has been recently debated in The Age. The matter concerns an effort by two police officers who are potentially facing criminal charges for misconduct to stop IBAC (Victoria’s anti-corruption commission) from publicly examining them about that misconduct. The pair’s argument, which rests on recent High Court decisions on whether Australian statutes allowing people to be compulsorily examined on matters that tend to incriminate them must give way to fundamental principles of accusatorial justice, failed in Victoria’s Court of Appeal late last month. The pair now wish to appeal to the High Court and Nettle J was asked to decide two urgent questions ahead of their application for special leave to appeal.

One issue was whether the pair could be named publicly ahead of the special leave application. Continue reading

News: Five new appeals, one an enigma

In hearings yesterday in Brisbane and Sydney, the High Court granted special leave in five new matters, including two Queensland judgments where Holmes JA (who recently replaced Carmody CJ as chief justice of Queensland) was the lone dissent. We know what four of the five judgments being appealed are broadly about:

  • Fischer v Nemeske Pty Ltd [2015] NSWCA 6, a dispute about a family trust, where minutes of a 1994 meeting of directors indicated a distribution of $4M of assets to two beneficiaries. Since then, both beneficiaries, their daughter and all but one of the directors have died, without any transfer of property. The NSW Court of Appeal unanimously held that the directors duly exercised their powers in 1994,that an oral resolution a month before accelerating the vesting day didn’t affect the distribution, that the distribution placed the trust in debt to the beneficiaries and that a 2004 directors’ declaration acknowledging the earlier events extended the period for enforcing the debt (which otherwise would have expired in 2007) so that the estate’s claim could proceed.
  • Murdoch v The Queen [2014] NTCCA 20, an appeal by a man convicted of sexually abusing his step-grandchild on three occasions. The Northern Territory Court of Criminal Appeal unanimously held that the trial judge properly admitted evidence from the complainant’s friend and relatives of the revelation of the abuse, that a direction to the jury that her revelations ‘were some evidence that an offence did occur’ was appropriate (despite their generality), and that the trial judge properly admitted her testimony about a later incident where the accused allegedly ran his hand up her leg during a massage as evidence of the accused’s sexual interest in her. The latter issue may finally draw the High Court into a dispute between the NSW and Victorian courts as to the meaning of the key terms ‘probative value’ and ‘significant probative value’ in Australia’s uniform evidence legislation.
  • Mekpine Pty Ltd v Moreton Bay Regional Council [2014] QCA 317, an action by a shopping centre tenant for compensation for land that the Council resumed for road improvements in 2008. When the lease was signed in 1999, it was over a lot unaffected by the later roadworks, but a redevelopment five years later combined that lot with another lot that was affected. While the trial judge and Holmes JA would have rejected the tenant’s claim, a majority of the Queensland Court of Appeal held that the amalgamation gave the tenant an interest in both lots and that, anyway, a statutory provision giving commercial tenants rights over ‘common areas’ meant that the tenant had a compensable interest in the area that was resumed.
  • McDermott & Ors v Robinson Helicopter Company Incorporated [2014] QCA 357, an action by a survivor of a fatal helicopter accident near the Queensland/Northern Territory border, alleging that the chopper’s maintenance manual gave inadequate instructions on how to check for loose bolts (the cause of the accident.) While the trial judge and Holmes JA held that the manual was adequate in requiring that a tape on key bolts be routinely visually inspected for signs of twisting, a majority of the Queensland Court of Appeal held that the manual should have recommended physically testing each bolt’s tightness with a spanner. (Presumably, the High Court’s interest in the case is not about the law of helicopter bolt maintenance manuals, but rather the appropriateness of an appeal court reversing a trial judge’s factual findings in a negligence case.)

The fifth judgment is an enigma for now. Continue reading

News: Court’s website now includes its judgments

In a seemingly unannounced change, which occurred somewhere between May and July this year, the High Court’s website now contains a database of its own judgments, consisting of all judgments since 2000, and also all ‘unreported’ judgments from 1924 to 2002. The site has its own (somewhat unfashionable) url –  http://eresources.hcourt.gov.au – and you can link to summaries and judgments via urls in this domain that incorporate the media neutral citation. The database is browsable and searchable, and provides copies of the judgments in .rtf and .pdf (but not html) format.  The website states that new judgments will be published ‘on the day they are delivered’, although presumably they will be up within the hour, as is typical on Austlii and Jade. For now, transcripts of the Court’s hearings are not available on the Court’s website.

This change brings Australia’s national court closer into line with the practice of comparable courts Continue reading

News: Pfennig back in court

A long-running Adelaide mystery, the 1983 disappearance of 11 year-old Louise Bell, is currently being explored in a Supreme Court murder trial. The Advertiser reports a prosecutor’s description of an alleged conversation between prisoners at Mt Gambier Prison:

Pfennig started to talk about Michael Black, how he had murdered him,” she said. “He said he couldn’t tell anyone where Michael Black was ‘because there is a chick there’. “The other prisoner asked ‘what chick?’ and Pfennig replied ‘Bell’.”

If true, this amounts to an admission by Dieter Pfennig, not only to his responsibility for Bell’s death, but also to the correctness of a 1995 High Court ruling upholding Pfennig’s conviction for the murder of Black, who vanished near the Murray River in 1989. That judgment is arguably the Court’s most significant (and most controversial) ruling on evidence law. Continue reading

News: Prime Ministers who have appeared before the High Court

Malcolm Turnbull joins a select group: lawyers who have argued before Australia’s national court and then gone on to lead the nation. In 1988, the future Prime Minister capped his greatest success in his career as a barrister by successfully defending his lower court victories in the Spycatcher case in the High Court. The case famously concerned the UK government’s attempts to block the publication of a book by a former MI5 agent, Peter Wright. Having succeeded at trial in arguing that the book’s supposedly confidential contents was mostly already public overseas, Turnbull secured a majority ruling in the NSW Court of Appeal (consisting of two future High Court judges, Kirby P and McHugh JA) and then a unanimous victory in the High Court, which ruled that Australian courts applying the law of confidentiality ought not protect the security interests of an overseas government. Turnbull also succeeded as a junior barrister in an earlier case before the national court, when he defended Noel Chrichton-Browne in the Court of Disputed Returns.

A previous Prime Minister with a much more impressive record before the High Court is Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest serving leader. Continue reading

News: Bank fees action and three other cases granted special leave

Last Friday, the High Court granted special leave in four cases. One is especially newsworthy: the return of the long-running dispute about the validity of various bank fees to the High Court. As Katy Barnett outlines here,  the Court in 2012 held hat such fees are subject to the rule against contractual ‘penalties’ despite being expressed as contractual obligations, (rejecting a preliminary ruling by the trial judge in favour of the banks.)  This year, the Full Court of the Federal Court nevertheless ruled that none of the fees were penalties. As Katy Barnett predicted, that ruling will now be considered by the High Court. But not all of the Court: the trial judge (who wrongly ruled that the fees weren’t subject to the rule, but also held that late credit card payment fees were penalties) was Gordon J, who has since joined the national court. That almost certainly means that she won’t participate in the High Court’s new consideration of the case.

The other three cases granted special leave include one from the Tasmanian courts, ending a six year drought of Tasmanian cases in the national court. The three cases are: Continue reading

News: Dyson Heydon on the perceived email habits of High Court judges

In his decision yesterday rejecting an application to recuse himself from the Trade Union Royal Commission on the grounds of apprehended bias, Commissioner Dyson Heydon considered whether a reasonable bystander would think (contrary to Heydon’s own assertion) that Heydon would  read all of his email attachments (including one describing the nature of the function he had agreed to speak at.) The ACTU’s counsel, Robert Newlinds SC, argued:

People don’t get appointed to the High Court of Australia unless they are considered truly brilliant lawyers, and what the truly brilliant lawyers have over and above truly ordinary lawyers, they have that special ability to absorb incredibly quickly and distil facts, and an ability to retain facts so absorbed and distilled, so as to fit them into the wider picture of the particular legal problem at hand….  So, the reasonable hypothetical bystander is going to think you’ve read this email.

But the Commissioner countered that the reasonable bystander would have a quite different view of former High Court judges’ reading habits: Continue reading

News: Hon Ken Hayne to be commissioned for parliamentary inquiry into Victorian Auditor-General

Yesterday, both houses of Victoria’s parliament approved a motion to request that the Parliament’s Public Accounts and Estimates Committee ‘ inquire into and report no later than 20 October 2015 on allegations made against the Auditor-General, Mr John Doyle, in a formal grievance dated 12 August 2015, by a member of his staff’. Although the request does not detail the nature of those allegations, the Committee’s remit includes whether ‘the Parliament should give consideration to the removal of the Auditor-General from office’ under s. 94C(5) of Victoria’s Constitution. And, although also not detailed in the motion, it appears that the inquiry will be conducted by a very recently retired High Court judge (and current professorial fellow at Melbourne Law School.) Continue reading

News: New Court cases include one touching on Triggs controversy

In today’s special leave hearings in Perth, the High Court granted special leave to appeal on two Western Australian matters. One of those – on a politically sensitive topic, damages for convicted criminals wrongly held in immigration detention – was relied on by Australian Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs to recommend $350,000 in damages for another immigration detainee and High Court litigant, John Basikbasik, resulting in attacks on her role and character earlier this year (as discussed here by Katy Barnett.)

The two matters where leave is granted are: Continue reading

News: Referendum on constitutional meaning of marriage

“The type of issue that could be canvassed under Section 51 of the constitution — simply at the moment, in Clause 21, it just says ‘marriage’,” Mr Morrison said. “You could equally put in there opposite- and same-sex marriage and clarify very clearly what the meaning of the constitution is on this question, and to reflect [what] some would argue has been a societal change since the constitution was first written.”

Mr Morrison acknowledged the High Court had already ruled on it. “Justices of the High Court have already expressed opinions on this issue, that’s fine, but what I am saying is I would prefer the Australian people decide this: not me, not [High Court Chief Justice Robert French], but the Australian people.”

Federal Minister for Social Services Scott Morrison here refers to Cth v ACT [2013] HCA 55, where six members of the Court said that ‘When used in s 51(xxi)’ of the Constitution, the federal Parliament’s power to make laws about marriage, ‘”marriage” is a term which includes a marriage between persons of the same sex.’ Attorney-General George Brandis later relied on the same case to declare that ‘No constitutional referendum is necessary in this case.’

Given the High Court’s 2013 holding, what would be the legal effect of the referendum? There are two possibilities to consider. Continue reading

News: Court takes a new appeal on advocates’ immunity

The High Court held another single location hearing of special leave applications last week in Sydney, ahead of a further day of hearings when the Court sits in Perth this week. Last Friday, the Court granted leave in just one case, while refusing leave in all others, including yet another matter addressing the Court’s trilogy of rulings on accusatorial justice, and a case addressing a major divergence between NSW and Victorian courts on the interpretation of the so-called ‘uniform evidence legislation’.

The judgment where leave to appeal has been granted is Jackson Lalic Lawyers Pty Limited v Attwells [2014] NSWCA 335, which concerns advocates’ immunity from negligence actions. Continue reading

News: Who would have standing to challenge the citizenship deprivation law?

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is currently holding any inquiry into a Bill to deprive dual citizens of their Australian citizenship if they engage in particular sorts of conduct (including particular terrorist activities and foreign incursions and recruitment), defined by reference to offence provisions in the federal Criminal Code. In evidence before the Committee on Tuesday, Professor George Williams reportedly predicted a speedy High Court challenge to the Bill’s constitutionality:

UNSW professor George Williams told a Senate inquiry on Tuesday that it was the most “problematically drafted bill” he had ever seen, with more constitutional problems in it than any he had given evidence on. This included a law that allows ASIO to detain and question any Australian for up to a week and foreign fighter legislation aiming to restrain Australians returning from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq. Professor Williams had “no doubt” such a law would be challenged in the High Court and had already been approached by “prominent solicitors” who had clients facing charges that are included in the bill. “It’s such an obvious one to bring a challenge to; I don’t see why they wouldn’t to escape loss of their citizenship.”

But the High Court’s decision last year on Queensland’s bikie laws places a potential roadblock in the face of any such challenge: the requirement that the challenger have ‘standing’ to challenge the laws. Continue reading

News: Federal parliament axes the Court’s crime commission cases

The federal Law Enforcement Legislation Amendment (Powers) Act 2015 (Cth) comes into force today. At the Bill’s second reading speech in March, Minister for Justice Michael Keenan explained that the Bill responds to a set of recent court decisions on the powers of crime commissions (as discussed by Anna Dziedzic here, here and here.) In its X7 decision from 2013, a narrow majority of the High Court held that the Australian Crime Commission could not use its compulsory examination powers to examine a person charged with drug trafficking offences about those offences, while a later decision overturned drug convictions where the trial prosecutors had been illegally given access to transcripts of compelled examinations by the NSW Crime Commission. According to Keenan, the effect of these decisions have been felt well beyond the world of drug prosecutions: Continue reading

Prove Your Own Contempt: CFMEU v Boral

Let’s just say that you and your neighbour really don’t get along. No-one can remember how the dispute started, but you’ve both done things you (sort of) regret. Towards the end, your neighbour even convinced a court to order you to not block her driveway. The sniping only ended when she moved away.

But that was when the real battle began. Your neighbour is back in court asking a judge to punish you for flouting its order. She has photos of a green Corolla parked across her driveway a few evenings before she moved. It’s not your car, but she’s pretty sure you must have put someone up to it and she wants you to be taught a lesson in civility. To prove her case, she asks the court to order you to provide your phone contacts, so she can check whether anyone you know owned or had access to a green Corolla.

Let’s just say that you’d really rather not hand over those contacts. Can a court make you help your neighbour prove that you should be punished for contempt? The High Court looked at this question in Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union v Boral Resources (Vic) Pty Ltd [2015] HCA 21. Its unanimous answer: it depends on who you and your neighbour are.

‘we’ve lost our keys’

In the High Court case, ‘you’ are the CFMEU, a trade union with over 120,000 members, especially builders, and a flashpoint in Australian workplace relations. Your ‘neighbour’ is Boral, a multinational founded in Australia with over $5 billion in annual revenue, specialising in construction materials.The ‘court order’ was rulings made by Hollingworth J in early 2013 barring the CFMEU from stopping Boral from supplying goods or services to any construction site in Victoria. Continue reading

News: Two grants of special leave, one fast-tracked

On its traditional special leave hearing day this session, the High Court held hearings at only one of its registries (Sydney, but with video-links to Melbourne and Adelaide), instead of the usual two. Of the nine matters heard, none were criminal and only one was granted. Much more unusually, the Court yesterday granted special leave in another matter, without any oral hearing. Both new cases are interesting: Continue reading

News: AUSPUBLAW on Queesland v Congoo

Opinions on High welcomes auspulaw.org to the blogosphere:

AUSPUBLAW posts contributions from leading public law experts – including academics and practitioners – across Australia. The Blog seeks to promote greater engagement with public law issues and a national platform for informed debate about current issues in public law.

Because of the central role of Australia’s High Court in matters of public law, the subject-matter of the Australian Public Law blog, hosted by UNSW’s Gilbert and Tobin Centre for Public Law, overlaps with this blog, especially if the concept of public law is interpreted broadly.

An example is today’s AUSPUBLAW post on the High Court’s recent decision in Queensland v Congoo [2015] HCA 17 Continue reading

News: A century of dissents

Last week, UNSW’s Gilbert and Tobin Centre for Public Law held a workshop on Great Australian Dissents. The  judgments nominated by the attendees were tweeted during the proceedings and included thirteen High Court dissents from 1915 to 2013:

Although my own nomination was Deane J’s anguished dissent in the Chamberlain case, my workshop paper identified a forgotten judgment from exactly one hundred years ago as arguably the greatest dissenting judgment of all time. Continue reading

News: A reprieve in the High Court

Yesterday, in Isbester v Knox City Council [2015] HCA 20, the High Court unanimously quashed a 2013 decision by a local council ordering that the plaintiff’s dog, Izzy, ‘be destroyed’, observing that the decision:

affects the owner of the dog. Whether one describes an interest in a dog as a property right, or acknowledges the importance of a domestic pet to many people, the appellant is a person who may be affected by a decision which will require her interests to be subordinated to the public interest.

The Court held that, because the panel the Council formed to decide Izzy’s fate included a council employee who had prosecuted the plaintiff for the offence of owning Izzy when the dog bit a person’s finger (a ‘serious injury’ under Victoria’s Domestic Animals Act 1994), her involvement in the later decision about Izzy’s destruction created a risk of apprehended bias. Izzy’s fate now depends on a fresh decision by the council, made without any involvement by the earlier decision-makers or the prosecutor.

The case is an unusual illustration of how a final court of appeal like the High Court can sometimes be required to make decisions about life and death. Continue reading

News: New ICAC challenge goes directly to the High Court

At a hearing on Monday, Gageler J ordered the ‘removal’ to the High Court of a NSW matter challenging the constitutionality of recently enacted NSW legislation retrospectively validating some past actions by that state’s Independent Commission Against Corruption. The Judiciary Act permits the High Court to move any current constitutional or federal dispute in any Australian court directly to the High Court if one or more parties (or an Attorney-General) applies. Last Tuesday, Gageler J agreed to expedite the request to move the application and ordered the parties to provide written submissions. According to Monday’s reasons, those submissions (which are not publicly available) were persuasive:

I am persuaded to take this course having regard, in particular, to the potential for an early resolution of the constitutional issue by this Court to result in a significant saving of time in the hearing and disposition of the proceeding between the present parties that is now pending in the Court of Appeal, as well as to the resolution or substantial resolution of a number of other proceedings now pending in the Supreme Court of New South Wales in which the same issue arises, or is likely to arise.

Indeed, the removal was supported by the party challenging the legislation and was not opposed by ICAC. (By contrast, see here on unsuccessful applications for removal.)

The current ICAC matter has close ties to two separate High Court judgments that were brought down on April 15 this year. Continue reading

News: The High Court splits evenly again

Today, the High Court issued its judgment in the last of three six-judge decisions heard in the months before Crennan J’s retirement. As I discussed in this piece in The ConversatIon last December, even-numbered benches are a sporadic, but persistent, by-product of the Court’s composition:

This same problem arises each and every time a High Court judge approaches retirement. Indeed, it’s happening right now. The Court is scheduled to hear six judge cases in important matters through to June next year because two High Court judges are retiring in succession. Any one of them could be another tie. Cases already at risk of being resolved, perhaps irreversibly, by a tie breaker include regulatory action over Sydney’s radio hoax tragedy, a native title claim over a World War Two training ground, and the aftermath of the collapsed tourism, property and finance group, Octaviar bankruptcy.

The radio hoax and bankruptcy cases were resolved unanimously. However, as I feared last year, today’s native title decision was a tie, Continue reading

News: Over a dozen High Court holdings abolished in Victoria

Yesterday, Victoria’s Parliament passed a law that overturns over a significant number of High Court holdings on the law governing criminal trials. The notes to the Jury Directions Bill 2015 state that it ‘abolishes’ (or confirms the prior abolition of) rules stated by the High Court in the following cases:

  • Pemble v R [1971] HCA 20,  Gilbert v R [2000] HCA 15 and R v Nguyen [2010] HCA 38, on jury directions on defences, offences and bases for complicity that were not argued by the prosecution or defence.
  • Edwards v R [1993] HCA 63 and Zoneff v R [2000] HCA 28, on jury directions on so-called ‘consciousness of guilt’ evidence.
  • Longman v R [1989] HCA 60Crampton v R [2000] HCA 60 and Doggett v R [2001] HCA 46, on jury directions on how the defence may have been disadvantaged due to the time elapsed between an alleged offence and the trial
  • Weissensteiner v R [1993] HCA 65Azzopardi v R [2001] HCA 25 and Dyers v R [2002] HCA 45, on jury directions on the defendant’s failure to explain evidence or to call particular witnesses at the trial
  • Kilby v R [1973] HCA 30 and Crofts v R [1996] HCA 22, on jury directions on the credibility of rape complaint evidence
  • Shepherd v R [1990] HCA 56, on the proof of facts that are indispensable to the prosecution case.

The BIll also refines other aspects of the law on jury directions that have repeatedly been addressed in the High Court, including directions on so-called ‘similar fact’ evidence, identification evidence and the meaning of ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt’.

The sheer number of cases addressed by the BIll is only part of the story. Continue reading

News: July constitutional law conference will include focus on Hayne J

One of the many traditions when the guard changes at the High Court is reviews of the outgoing judge’s contribution to the law. At his final special leave hearing in Sydney two Fridays ago, members of the NSW profession spoke to Hayne J’s role, and further similar occasions will doubtless follow in Melbourne and Canberra. Alongside such ceremonial efforts, some (but not all) High Court judges also find themselves the topic of a conference or panel. In Hayne J’s case, such an examination will occur as part of a constitutional law conference to be held by Melbourne Law School’s Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies on July 23 and 24.

The conference will include two events specific to Hayne J. Continue reading

News: Four new special leave grants

In sittings on Friday, the High Court granted special leave to appeal the following four decisions:

  • Commissioner of Taxation v Australian Building Systems Pty Ltd (in liq) [2014] FCAFC 133 concerns the taxation obligations of liquidators. The full court of the Federal Court held that a liquidator who sold a bankrupt company’s property was not required to withhold an amount from the proceeds to pay the company’s capital gains tax, because the liquidator had not received an assessment requiring it to pay the tax.
  • R v Smith [2014] QCA 277 is an appeal against Smith’s conviction for a 1990 rape. The Queensland Court of Appeal dismissed all of Smith’s complaints, including the trial judge’s decision to permit the jury to reach a 11:1 majority verdict. It held that the trial judge was not obliged to disclose to the parties information from the jury about the state of their deliberations prior to permitting a majority verdict, characterising a recent Victorian decision to the contrary as clearly wrong.
  • State of New South Wales v Fuller-Lyons [2014] NSWCA 424 concerns a tragic accident from 2001 where an 8 year-old with a cognitive impairment fell out of a train travelling at 100 km/h. The NSW Court of Appeal overturned the trial judge’s finding that the accident was due to the train station attendant’s failure to notice the child’s arm protruding from a door as it pulled away from Morisset station, holding that the evidence was equally consistent with the child propping open the door with a less visible object.
  • WZARH v Minister for Immigration and Border Protection [2014] FCAFC 137 concerns the obligation to provide an oral hearing to an applicant for a protection visa. The full court of the Federal Court held that the applicant, who had been given an oral hearing before an independent merits reviewer, had a legitimate expectation to a further oral hearing after a new independent merits reviewer was appointed.

News: Justice Michelle Gordon’s unsurprising appointment

A long rumoured appointment to the High Court was announced yesterday:

Today, his Excellency the Governor-General accepted the advice of the Government to appoint the Honourable Michelle Marjorie Gordon, a Judge of the Federal Court of Australia, as the next Justice of the High Court of Australia. Justice Gordon will replace the Honourable Justice Kenneth Hayne AC, who will reach the statutory retirement on 5 June 2015.

Very much like Hayne J’s own appointment in 1997, Gordon J’s is entirely orthodox given the usual criteria of merit and geographic (and, in Gordon J’s case, gender) diversity on the Court. Like Hayne J (whose appointment by the Howard government was also ‘not unexpected in legal circles’), Gordon J’s appointment is perceived by some to be  consistent with the federal government’s conservative politics. In contrast to the recent novelty of Nettle J’s status as the Court’s oldest appointee, Gordon J (aged 50) is the Court’s youngest appointee since Gaudron J (aged 44 in 1987), a distinction held until now  by Hayne J (appointed at age 52.)

Justices Gordon and Hayne have one more thing in common: Continue reading

News: Nettle J’s first judgment

Today, in his first judgment on the High Court, Nettle J explained why a federal incentive scheme for reducing greenhouse gas emissions was constitutional, a conclusion that most constitutional lawyers would have predicted. Even non-lawyers could have readily predicted what the remainder of the bench would say:

FRENCH CJ. I agree with the answers given by Nettle J to the questions posed in the Special Case for the reasons which his Honour gives.
HAYNE J. I agree with Nettle J.
KIEFEL J. I agree with Nettle J.
BELL J. I agree with Nettle J.
GAGELER J. I agree with Nettle J.
KEANE J. I agree with the judgment of Nettle J.

Queensland Nickel Pty Limited v Commonwealth of Australia [2015] HCA 12 is the latest in a tradition of sorts, where the High Court periodically forgoes its usual practice of presenting judgments where multiple judges agree (and have nothing further to add) as jointly authored by all of them, in favour of one judge presenting the judgment and the rest giving individual pro forma concurrences.

Although seemingly never officially acknowledged, the practice appears to be a way for the Court’s judges to mark the arrival of a new judge on the bench.  Continue reading

News: Report that Bell J recused herself from Cunneen case

This Wednesday, the High Court held an all-day hearing on the closely watched dispute between the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption and prosecutor Margaret Cunneen over the legality of the former’s inquiry into allegations that the latter perverted the course of justice in a traffic matter involving her son’s girlfriend. Reports during the day emphasised criticisms from the bench of ICAC’s barrister, but of more interest is an early morning report in the Sydney Morning Herald early that focused on the composition of the bench itself:

When the High Court convenes to hear the hotly anticipated legal battle between the NSW corruption watchdog and Crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen on Wednesday, one judge will not be on the bench. Fairfax Media understands Justice Virginia Bell will not be part of the five-judge bench hearing the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s challenge to a ruling shutting down its inquiry into the silk because she has previously made a ruling unfavourable to Ms Cunneen.

The transcript for Wednesday’s all-day hearing shows that the five-judge bench consisted of French CJ , Hayne J, Kiefel J, Gageler J and Nettle J. Justice Hayne’s presence is something of a surprise, given that he must retire in three months (in apparent contrast to Crennan J, who heard her last full bench matter over three-and-a-half months before her retirement.) On the other hand, Bell J’s absence from the bench was seemingly no surprise, a fact that raises two interesting issues about the High Court itself. Continue reading

News: Nettle J joins the bench

On Tuesday morning, the High Court held a ceremonial sitting for the swearing-in of Nettle J as the Court’s fiftieth judge, attended by all six of his future colleagues, thirteen of his former colleagues on the Supreme Court of Victoria, nine of Australia’s eleven Chief Justices and a multitude of senior lawyers and former judges. Video of the ceremony (the first such to be posted on the High Court’s website under its new audio-visual policy) captures the moment when Nettle J strode directly up to French CJ and announced his commissioning by the Governor-General. He  took an oath of allegiance and of office – a choice also taken by every other new High Court judge in the past two decades bar one – and then his seat on the bench. As in all High Court ceremonies, the bulk of proceedings were taken up with speeches from senior lawyers lauding the new judge, beginning with federal Attorney-General George Brandis, who said that he ‘can scarcely remember an appointment to this Court which was so seamless, so free of controversy, and so universally appraised.’

While the bulk of the ceremony looked to Nettle J’s past, its last fourteen minutes provide a glimpse of the Court’s future. Two parts of Nettle J’s swearing-in remarks are especially illuminating. Continue reading

News: Crennan J’s solo judgments

Justice Susan Crennan’s imminent retirement from the High Court inevitably invites reflections on her contribution while on the bench. According to Jane Needham SC, Crennan J ‘delivered 316 judgments’ in her nine years at the national court. However, only five of those judgments (two early judgments on wrongful life actions, and three constitutional judgments on elections and executive power) were mentioned in recent ceremonial sittings to mark her retirement. The key difficulty in assessing Crennan J’s contribution was alluded to in the judge’s own remarks at the Sydney ceremonial sitting:

From time to time, there is speculation about the authorship of joint judgments from this Court. Naturally, it is not always accurate. Earlier this year, Justice Kiefel on my right remarked of judgment writing, “Collegiality is not compromise”. In that spirit, may I take the goodwill expressed toward me this morning as an appreciation of the work of the Court as a whole.

By my count, Crennan J issued 28 sole-authored judgments while on the High Court, easily less than 10% of her total. In an extreme contrast, the last High Court judge to retire, Heydon J, issued twice that many such judgments in a single year on the bench (as part of a seventeen-month period where he never joined a judgment.)

Here is my list of Crennan J’s solo High Court judgments: Continue reading

News: Man Haron Monis in the High Court

Opinions on High extends our condolences to those affected by this morning’s events in Sydney, especially the bereaved. In the aftermath of this tragedy, there will undoubtedly be close scrutiny of Man Haron Monis, the man said to be the assailant in the Lindt Cafe. As part of its initial analysis, today’s Sydney Morning Herald notes Monis’s recent litigation before the High Court of Australia:

It has been Monis’ ongoing legal battle over his conviction for penning the poisonous letters to the families of dead Australian soldiers between 2007 and 2009 that has consumed him. It is understood Monday’s siege followed an unsuccessful, last-ditch attempt in the High Court on Friday, December 12, to have the conviction overturned.

This post outlines the various hearings the High Court has held relating to Monis’s argument that the federal crime he was charged with – using a postal service to cause offence – is invalid under the Constitution’s implied freedom of political communication. Continue reading

News: High profile cases considered for special leave

On Friday, the High Court held its last special leave hearings for 2014. The media  reports that French CJ has referred a closely watched case, Cunneen v Independent Commission Against Corruption [2014] NSWCA 421, where a majority of the NSW Court of Appeal stopped a corruption inquiry into allegations against a NSW prosecutor, to a full court hearing next year. However, various media reports have highlighted the Court’s refusal to hear appeals in three other high profile matters:

In Friday’s hearings, the Court granted special leave in just two matters:

Continue reading

News: Justice Geoffrey Nettle’s surprise appointment

Today brings an end to recent speculation about the next appointment to the High Court.  The Australian reports:

GEOFFREY Nettle, a “brilliant” judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal, has been named as the Abbott government’s first appointment to the High Court. Justice Nettle will replace Justice Susan Crennan, who will retire from the bench on February 3, five months ahead of schedule. Attorney-General George Brandis made the announcement this morning at Parliament House in Canberra. He walked out of the room immediately after making the announcement without taking questions.

Justice Nettle’s appointment is unsurprising in many respects: he is a Victorian (replacing another Victorian, Crennan J), a graduate of the ANU, Melbourne Law School and Oxford (see Katy Barnett’s discussion of High Court judges’ education), a sitting judge (like most recent appointments) and (in my and many others’ opinions) one of the best judges in Australia. He is also male, meaning that the High Court’s number of female judges will drop to just two out of seven, but that number may be short lived depending on who replaces Hayne J next year.

And yet, the recent speculation about Crennan J’s replacement discounted Nettle J as a possibility for just one reason: his age. Justice Nettle’s wikipedia page states that he was born in 1950 (but does not specify a birthday), meaning he will be either 64 or 65 when he first sits, easily the oldest ever appointee to the High Court. Continue reading

News: Unsuccessful High Court litigants succeed at the UN

Last week brought news that NSW prisoners Bronson Blessington and Matthew Elliot succeeded in a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Now in their forties, the pair were teens when they raped and murdered Janine Balding in 1988 and were in their thirties when the High Court rejected their appeals against their life sentences in 2007. The Human Rights Committee’s finding – that a NSW law that barred their parole until they were near death violated their right against cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – was foreshadowed by Kirby J ten years ago during a constitutional challenge to similar laws:

At the time of the offence for which Mr Blessington was convicted and sentenced, he was 14 years of age…. On a true construction of the impugned law, Mr Blessington’s “possibility of release” is, in my view, a chimera, and deliberately so. If that is the case, the impugned law is in conflict with binding international obligations expressing universal human rights and fundamental freedoms.

However, Kirby J was the only High Court judge to hold that the laws were invalid. In 2012, the High Court unanimously rejected a challenge to even stricter laws to largely prevent the parole of Elliot, Blessington and eight other New South Wales prisoners, the subject of the Committee’s recent finding.

The UN Committee’s finding does not overturn or even bring into question the High Court’s rulings. Continue reading