Bank fees back in court again

The class action involving bank fees is back in court again. Last year, the class action against banks was uplifted to the High Court in Andrews v Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Limited [2012] HCA 3. It was remitted back down to the Federal Court for decision in light of the High Court’s decision last year and is presently being heard. The case involved the rule against penalties in contract. The essence of the rule is that parties may stipulate the amount payable for certain breaches of contract (known as ‘liquidated damages’), but if the amount payable is not a genuine pre-estimate of loss and is instead in terrorem of the other contracting party (i.e. designed to scare them into performance rather than compensate for loss) then the clause may be struck down by the law against penalties: see Ringrow Pty Ltd v BP Australia Pty Ltd [2005] HCA 71; (2005) 224 CLR 656, affirming Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Co Ltd v New Garage and Motor Co Ltd [1915] AC 79.

There has been intense media interest in the case (see here and here) and indeed, I was contacted by a number of outlets when the case went back to the Federal Court (for example, here and here) . As noted on Monday, there is a great deal of money at stake for both the banks and the customers. The present class action involves a $57 million claim, but other planned class actions are estimated to be worth $243 million, and more may be in the pipeline, depending on the success of this claim. Continue reading

Trident v McNiece twenty five years on

The seminal third party contract case Trident General Insurance Co Ltd v McNiece Bros Pty Ltd [1988] HCA 44 was decided twenty five years ago. It continues to be relevant to legal practice and legal education. It has had a lasting and important impact on insurance contracts, as it decided that the doctrine of privity did not apply to those contract. Typically the doctrine of privity means that only the parties to a contract are bound by it, and a person who is not a party to a contract (a ‘third party’) cannot enforce it. For example, suppose that Alphonse makes a contract with Bertha to the effect that Bertha will give Clarence an annuity after Alphonse dies. If Alphonse dies, and Bertha refuses to pay the annuity to Clarence, Clarence can’t force Bertha to keep to the contract because he is not a party to it.

The case also remains a reminder that the High Court will, when presented with the right circumstances, rework the law to achieve a just and fair outcome. In this post I will explore how the decision on the doctrine of privity has become entrenched; and discuss the impact on the decision, in particular the judgment of Deane J on our understanding of the law of express trusts.

What happened in Trident? Continue reading

Justice Gummow Reflects on His Time on the High Court

By Martin Clark

On Friday 13 September 2013 I was lucky enough to spend an hour interviewing Professor William Gummow AC about his time on the High Court of Australia (1995–2012).

Professor William Gummow AC retired in October 2012 from the High Court after 17 years on the bench. Prior to that he sat on the Federal Court for ten years, and before that had been an influential and highly-regarded member of the Sydney Bar, a partner at Allen Allen and Hemsley, and also lectured part-time at the Sydney Law School from 1965 until 1995. He is now Professor of Law at the Sydney Law School and the Australian National University.

In this extensive interview, Professor Gummow discusses a wide range of topics, including the  similarities and differences between the judges and processes of the High Court of Australia and other apex courts around the world, his views on advocacy before the High Court, and changes in the legal profession. He also offers his thoughts on the enduring importance of several great Australian judges, including Sir Owen Dixon, Sir Victor Windeyer, Sir Garfield Barwick and Sir Nigel Bowen. Continue reading

Reflections on the Local Government Referendum That Wasn’t

By Laureate Professor Cheryl Saunders AO

The latest proposal to amend the Commonwealth Constitution to ‘recognise’ local government may go down in history as one of the most inept attempts at constitutional change in Australia. Insofar as it has an indirect link to the decisions of the High Court in Pape v Commissioner of Taxation [2009] HCA 23 and Williams v Commonwealth [2012] HCA 23 it merits a post on Opinions on High. In any event, there are lessons to be drawn from the history of this proposal, as a guide to the formulation and conduct of future referendum proposals.

Constitution Alteration (Local Government) 2013 (Cth) passed both Houses of the Commonwealth Parliament on 24 June 2013. The impetus for it derived from a long-held desire on the part of local government to be recognised in the Commonwealth Constitution as the third arm of Australian government. This project is fraught because recognition almost inevitably involves substantive change of some kind in the operation of the Australian federation, in which the relations between the other two arms of government already is under strain. A proposal cast in terms of symbolic recognition was rejected at referendum in 1988. An earlier proposal to establish a direct financial relationship between the Commonwealth and local government was rejected in 1974 (see here). 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

News: Your Right to be on the Electoral Roll and Rowe’s Case

By Professor Miranda Stewart

The electoral roll closes by 8pm today, Monday 12 August 2013, seven days after the election writs were issued. If you have not registered by this time, you will not be eligible to vote in the forthcoming election on 7 September.

It seems appropriate to commemorate today the victory in Rowe’s Case [2010] HCA 46 in which the High Court struck down as unconstitutional, a law by which the electoral roll was closed on the day of issue of the electoral writ (usually, the day that the election is announced). The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Act 2006 (Cth), passed under the Howard government, had amended the Electoral Act 1918 (Cth), resulting in the electoral roll being closed on the day on which the electoral writ is issued for new or re-enrolling voters, and three days after the writ is issued for voters updating enrolment details. Previously, the electoral roll remained open for a period of seven days after the issue of the writ.

The victory reinstated the previous deadline for closure of the roll, and the High Court heard the case urgently and issued its decision within a record time, to enable an estimated 100,000 voters who were not on the roll, including many young people voting for the first time, to register to vote in the 2010 election. The plaintiff, Shannen Rowe, had turned 18 just a month before the 2010 election was called by then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Of course, she had not been old enough to vote in any previous election. Continue reading

Turning Points in the High Court: Remembering the Koowarta and Tasmanian Dam Cases

Peter Dombrovskis, ‘Rock Island Bend, Franklin River, Southwest Tasmania’ (1983).

By Dr Ann Genovese

2012 and 2013 mark the respective 30th anniversaries of the High Court’s decisions in Koowarta v Bjelke-Petersen [1982] HCA 27 and in Commonwealth v Tasmania [1983] HCA 21 (the Tasmanian Dam case).

Each of these cases is commonly understood to represent a turning point in Australia’s legal and political history: a shift to a different form of political engagement on complex questions about race, and the environment; and a shift in what those engagements could signify, nationally, and internationally. Cumulatively, the cases are also understood as marking a decisive jurisprudential turn, a consideration of a different engagement by the High Court of Australia with both international law and the politics of federal constitutionalism.

After 30 years, it is timely to reflect on the ongoing significance, in political and legal terms, of these two ground-breaking cases; yet also to review the complex ways in which the cases are remembered or understood as turning points. Two symposia hosted at the Melbourne Law School commemorated these anniversaries and the proceedings will be published in two special issues of the Griffith Law Review.

These symposia placed the cases into conversation with each other for the first time, opening new ways of approaching and writing about law’s authority and narratives as constitutive of an evolving Australian national identity into the 21st century. Continue reading

Remembering the Tasmanian Dam Case

Peter Dombrovskis, ‘Rock Island Bend, Franklin River, Southwest Tasmania’ (1983).

By Martin Clark

Commonwealth v Tasmania Case Page

On 1 July 1983, the High Court sat in Brisbane to hand down its decision in Commonwealth v Tasmania [1983] HCA 21. Popularly known as the Tasmanian Dam case, the decision is a landmark in Australian constitutional and environmental law. On 28 June 2013, 30 years after the decision was handed down, the Melbourne Law School hosted a symposium ‘Turning Points: Remembering Commonwealth v Tasmania (1983) 158 CLR 1’, to commemorate and reflect on the significance of the Tasmanian Dam case for Australian society, the environment and Australian law. The private symposium was convened by Dr Ann Genovese (Melbourne Law School). It brought together significant figures involved in the case, academic lawyers, historians and environmental activists, and the papers presented will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Griffith Law Review. For more on the Turning Points symposium, see here.

Continue reading

The High Court and the Doctrine of Precedent

By Associate Professor Matthew Harding

The doctrine of precedent is a fundamental constraint on judicial decision-making in Australia. The general idea behind the doctrine of precedent is that judges, when they are deciding cases, must pay proper respect to past judicial decisions. Sometimes this means that judges are bound to apply the reasoning of judges in past cases — in other words, ‘follow’ past decisions — when deciding cases that raise similar facts; sometimes it means that judges must take seriously the reasoning of judges in past cases even if they are not bound to apply that reasoning. The moral value of the doctrine of precedent is in the way it serves the political ideal of the rule of law; according to that ideal, institutions of the state, like courts, should strive to ensure that the law is developed and applied in a consistent and predictable manner, so that citizens may order their affairs with confidence as to their rights and duties. Continue reading