Conscience or Unjust Enrichment?: The Emperor’s Old Clothes: Australian Financial Services and Leasing Pty Ltd v Hills Industries Ltd

By Professor Graham Virgo
Downing College, University of Cambridge

Hills Industries Case Page

The central premise of C J Sansom’s excellent novel Dominion, is that Britain surrendered to Germany in 1940 and became a satellite state of the Third Reich. Sansom describes a very different world as a consequence of this surrender, but one populated by real people whose lives were put on a very different course by that single momentous event. Such counter-factual, ‘what if?’, history is fascinating. The same game can be played with the law of restitution. What if England had not recognised the law of unjust enrichment, developed from Lord Mansfield’s judgment in Moses v Macferlan (1760) 2 Burr 1005, 97 ER 676 via the misconceived implied contract theory, and retained the equitable principles which originally underpinned restitutionary claims? But that question can be answered without resort to fictional speculation. The answer is to be found in Australia. The most recent decision of the High Court of Australia in Australian Financial Services and Leasing Pty Ltd v Hills Industries Ltd [2014] HCA 14 reveals the nature of this counter-factual (from an English perspective) anti-unjust enrichment, pro-Equity world (see also Elise Bant’s post here). But when that world is investigated rather more rigorously this law of restitution is, to mix the literary allusions, nothing more than Hans Christian Andersen’s Emperor, albeit one who thinks he is wearing old clothes, but he is actually wearing nothing at all. Continue reading

Beyond Male and Female: Time for a Non-Specific Sex Category

By Anna Chapman

Earlier this month the High Court indicated it was prepared to hear a legal case that tests the ability of intersex Australians to be legally recognised as being neither male or female.

The High Court hearing will be the final decision in a claim initiated in 2010 by NSW resident Norrie, who had applied to the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages for a certificate to register a change of sex from male to ‘non-specific’.

The evidence before the hearing was that Norrie (who does not use a last name) did not identify as either male or female. Although at birth Norrie’s sex had been recorded as male, as an adult Norrie had undergone medical procedures, and now self-identified — and was identified in the community — as androgynous.

Statutory declarations from Norrie’s doctors supported the registration of a change in sex to ‘non-specific’. The NSW Registrar initially granted Norrie’s application, but this was later revoked.

Norrie appears to be the first person in Australia to litigate for the right to be identified as being of ‘non-specific’ sex. This ground-breaking litigation squarely challenges the capacity of law to countenance sex and gender diversity. Continue reading

Precedent on High: The High Court of Australia and ‘Seriously Considered Dicta’

By James Lee

This post considers a specific feature of the High Court of Australia’s approach to precedent. Since the 2007 decision in Farah Constructions v Say-Dee [2007] HCA 22, the Justices have moved to restrict the scope of the lower courts to develop the law, by asserting that lower courts are bound by ‘seriously considered dicta’ ([134] and [158]) of the High Court, admonishing courts below for raising new arguments in the course of judgments. Keith Mason has claimed that, in so doing, the High Court has effected a ‘profound shift in the rules of judicial engagement’ (Keith Mason, ‘President Mason’s Farewell Speech’ (2008) 82 Australian Law Journal 768, 769, see the original remarks here at 18–22). An excellent feature-length examination of the issues has been provided by Associate Professor Matthew Harding and Professor Ian Malkin (‘The High Court of Australia’s Obiter Dicta and Decision-Making in Lower Courts’ (2012) 34 Sydney Law Review 239). In this short post, I argue that the approach has uncertain implications for the Australian doctrine of precedent and the scope for intermediate courts of appeal to develop the law.

What is the High Court’s approach? Farah v Say-Dee and subsequent cases
Farah v Say-Dee concerned a claim for a variety of equitable reliefs in respect of various properties which were the subject of a joint venture development scheme between the claimant and defendant. The planning application for the property was unsuccessful, because the site was considered too small to ‘maximise its development potential’. During the application process, the defendant learned that permission was more likely to be granted if adjacent properties were included in the planned development. The defendant bought these properties through a company which he controlled. The claimants contended that these properties had been acquired through a breach of fiduciary duty and that consequently the recipients had knowingly received the properties, which were held on constructive trust for the claimants. The Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of New South Wales allowed the claimant’s claim, reversing the judge’s finding that there had been no breach of fiduciary duty, and instead held that the defendants were liable in knowing receipt. The Court of Appeal also found that a strict liability claim in unjust enrichment was available. Continue reading

GST – It’s Not a Matter of Choice: Commissioner of Taxation v Unit Trend Services Pty Ltd

By Michael Evans

Unit Trend Case Page

The High Court has had its first opportunity to decide a case on the general anti-avoidance rule in Australia’s Goods and Services Tax (GST) law, enacted more than a decade ago. In Commissioner of Taxation v Unit Trend Services Pty Ltd [2013] HCA 16, the High Court unanimously decided that the Commissioner can apply the GST anti-avoidance rule, even when a taxpayer makes specific choices or elections to engage in corporate structures, decisions and deals that are expressly allowed in the law.

The decision confirms that the GST anti-avoidance rule in div 165 of the GST law (and the income tax anti-avoidance rule on which it is based) gives the Commissioner of Tax a broad power to deal with avoidance schemes. Importantly, it confirms that, as intended by parliament, s 165-5(1)(b) of the GST law limits the protection for taxpayers that could arise from such statutory choices, agreements and elections contained in the GST law. This broader approach replaces the narrower ‘choice principle’ that was found to apply in earlier tax anti-avoidance rules such as former s 260 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 (Cth). The ‘choice principle’ as explained in W P Keighery Pty Ltd v Federal Commissioner of Taxation [1957] HCA 2, was that the anti-avoidance rule cannot be interpreted to remove from taxpayers their choices to order their affairs as they saw fit. Continue reading