No Duty to Detain Individuals with Severe Mental Health Problems: Hunter and New England Local Health District v McKenna

By Professor Bernadette McSherry

McKenna Case Page

Mental health practitioners may be breathing a sigh of relief that the High Court has unanimously held that a New South Wales hospital and a psychiatrist in its employ held no duty of care to the relatives of a man who was killed by a recently discharged patient. While the judgment is confined to a consideration of the effect of a statutory provision on whether or not a common law duty of care exists, the finding has repercussions for the movement in modern mental health care towards a focus on recovery and human rights rather than purely on preventive detention.

Risk assessment and risk management of those with severe mental health problems is now a core part of mental health practice. Mental health laws in Australian states and territories generally enable the involuntary detention and treatment of those with mental health problems on the basis that the individual concerned needs to be prevented from causing serious harm to him or herself or to others.

The question of how mental health practitioners ought to determine whether someone is at risk of harming him or herself or others is subject to a vast amount of literature and debate: see here, here and here. It remains the case, however, that it is exceptionally difficult to predict whether a specific individual may be at risk of harming another, particularly when there has been no history of violent behaviour. Forensic psychiatrists Andrew Carroll, Mark Lyall and Andrew Forrester pointed out in a 2004 article that ‘[n]o method, clinical, actuarial or combined, achieves anywhere near 100% predictive power, whether short or long term risk is considered.’ (at 413).

The deaths of Stephen Rose and Phillip Pettigrove
Phillip Pettigrove was born in 1962 and had a long history of mental health problems. Continue reading

The Conundrum of Concealment: Minister for Immigration and Border Protection v SZSCA [2013] FCAFC 155

The High Court’s decision in Minister for Immigration and Border Protection v SZSCA will be handed down on 12 November 2014. In expectation of the judgment we wanted to share this piece by Melbourne Law School Professorial Fellow and former Dean and current professor at Michigan Law School, James C. Hathaway, on the December 2013 Full Federal Court decision in the case. This post has been republished with permission from Reflaw.

By Professor James C. Hathaway

The Full Federal Court of Australia recently considered the refugee status of an Afghan who had worked for nearly a quarter century as a jewelry maker in Kabul, before deciding in 2007 to work instead as a self-employed truck driver. Initially, his work consisted of transporting such goods as wood, animal skins, and food across the country. But starting in January 2011, he agreed to begin hauling building materials from Kabul to Jaghori in order to supply reconstruction projects being undertaken by the government and international aid agencies. He took on this new work because “he was paid more” [21], noting that “there was not a lot of work and he had to support his family” [22]. When the Taliban threatened to kill him if he continued to transport building materials used in reconstruction, he fled Afghanistan and advanced a refugee claim in Australia.

The claimant reasonably argued that an adverse political opinion had been imputed to him by the Taliban, and that the Afghan government could not be counted on to shield him from the Taliban’s death threats. The Australian government contended, however, that he could avoid the risk by giving up truck driving and returning to his prior career as a jeweler. Counsel for the applicant countered that the applicant could not be compelled to give up his preferred work, and that if that work gave rise to a risk of being persecuted for reasons of an imputed political opinion, his refugee status should be recognized.

The majority of the Full Federal Court of Australia agreed with the applicant. Understanding the High Court of Australia to have ruled in S395 that a decision-maker “cannot require an asylum seeker to behave in a particular manner” [61] – the only relevant question being “whether an asylum seeker would not in fact behave in a particular matter upon his or her return” [61] – it was held that there was a duty to grant refugee status given the applicant’s unwillingness to resume his work as a jeweler in Kabul.

This decision continues a no doubt well-meaning, but analytically flawed, approach. Continue reading

Injuries and Workplace Misadventure: Comcare v PVYW

By Clare McIlwraith

Comcare v PVYW Case Page

Imagine your employer sends you to a conference interstate. Your travel, expenses and accommodation are all organised and paid for. Your 9-to-5 days and dinners are occupied with conference events. But what of all the other time you have on your hands? It is the stuff of folklore and Hollywood movies (like the 2011 movie Cedar Rapids) that those other times are filled with adventure. But for Australian employees there now exists a limit on what can be done out of the office that will be protected under workplace insurance schemes.

In October 2013 the High Court, by a 4:2 majority, allowed an appeal by the federal government’s workplace insurer, Comcare, denying the Commonwealth government employee respondent, known by the identifier ‘PVYW’, workers’ compensation under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (Cth) (SR&C Act).

PVYW had been sent to visit a regional office, and was required to stay overnight at a motel booked by the employer. While staying overnight at the motel, PVYW was struck in the face by a glass light fitting on the bed when it was pulled off the wall of the motel during sexual intercourse with a local acquaintance. Following the incident, PVYW claimed compensation for physical and subsequent psychological injuries under the SR&C Act.

The majority of the court held that the injury suffered by PVYW was not suffered ‘in the course of’ employment. This was because it was not caused through an activity encouraged or induced by the employer or was not considered ‘referable’ to a hotel stay. This last conclusion is perhaps surprising given the mythology of work trips and sex in hotel stays or because as Counsel for PVYW noted that sex is a universal incident of human life ([2013] HCATrans 169).

Although the SR&C Act only applies to Commonwealth government employees the decision will be relevant to all employees subject to workers compensation schemes because each scheme limits insurance recovery in similar (though in some cases more restrictive) ways (see [2013] HCATrans 114). Continue reading

Expert Evidence and Unreliability in the High Court: Honeysett v The Queen

By Andrew Roberts

Honeysett v The Queen Case Page

The question of how and by whom the reliability of expert testimony should be evaluated is problematic. For many, the prevailing approach in Australia is a cause for concern. However, the recent case of Honeysett v The Queen [2014] HCA 29 presented the High Court with an opportunity to grasp the nettle. In that case, the issue was whether and how a jury could be assisted in comparing the image of the accused taken at a police station to an armed robber captured on a CCTV image whose head was covered by a hood by an anatomy professor pointing out similarities in the images and the absence of any differences.

In criminal trials witnesses are generally prohibited from expressing opinions on matters that are to be determined by the jury. Witnesses are generally expected to testify only to the facts. The drawing of inferences from those facts is the exclusive province of the jury. Opinions offered by witnesses are excluded because they are superfluous. The prohibition is subject, however, to significant exceptions, one of which permits an opinion to be expressed by a witness who possesses ‘specialised knowledge’ — provided that the opinion is ‘wholly or substantially based’ on that knowledge. Such witnesses are allowed to express opinions because the jury is thought to lack the knowledge and experience that would enable it to draw rational and reliable inferences. In such circumstances, the expert’s opinions are required to ensure that verdict returned by the jury is the product of sound reasoning.

Why reliability matters
What then of the issue of reliability? If the justification for allowing experts to offer opinions is that the jury lacks the competence required to draw the inferences drawn by the expert, is the idea that evaluation of the reliability of expert opinion should be left to the jury plausible? Continue reading

The DNA, the Handshake and the Didgeridoo: Fitzgerald v The Queen

By Professor Jeremy Gans

Fitzgerald v The Queen Case Page

On 19 June 2011 at around 6 am, a group of men carrying makeshift weapons poured from two cars into an Adelaide suburban home. The resulting horror left 23 year-old Kym Drover dead and 25 year-old Daniel Fitzgerald serving a minimum twenty year term for his murder. Just two pieces of evidence linked the two: a handshake the previous evening (between Fitzgerald and the only other person convicted of the attack on Drover) and a didgeridoo found the next morning next to Drover (containing Fitzgerald’s DNA).

Two months ago, on the crime’s third anniversary, the High Court unanimously, correctly and — after his counsel noted his otherwise clean record — summarily freed and acquitted Fitzgerald, exemplifying the national court’s role as a last ditch avenue of appeal for the wrongly convicted. But the case should never have got that far. Fitzgerald should never have been charged. He should never have been found guilty. He should have easily won his appeal in South Australia. The High Court’s slight reasons in Fitzgerald v The Queen [2014] HCA 28 do too little to address the risks arising from the criminal justice system’s overuse of DNA evidence. Continue reading

Sir Anthony Mason Reflects on Judging in Australia and Hong Kong, Precedent and Judgment Writing

On 18 July 2014, I was able to interview Sir Anthony Mason as we were both attending Obligations VII Conference in Hong Kong.

Sir Anthony was a judge of the High Court of Australia from 1972 to 1987, and Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia from 1987 to 1995. He then became a non-permanent judge of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal, a position which he still holds.

We spoke about his roles as a judge in Australia and Hong Kong, significant judgments during his time as a High Court judge, the role of dissenting judgments, the use of academic commentary and overseas judgments, the doctrine of precedent and Farah v Say-Dee, and judgment writing styles.

KB: Thanks so much for agreeing to speak to me today.

AM: It’s a pleasure, Katy.

KB: The first thing I’d like to ask is: how would you view your time on the High Court?

AM: I enjoyed it very much. I suppose I can say I enjoyed being a judge.

KB: Yes.

AM: In one sense I regarded it as great fun. It was of course at times onerous, but I always enjoyed it. The questions were interesting and it was interesting endeavouring to answer the questions.

KB: And on that note, obviously you haven’t still given up being a judge. What about your time on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal? (See also The Hon Sir Anthony Mason, ‘The Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal’ (2001) 2 Melbourne Journal of International Law 216.)

AM: Likewise, I’ve enjoyed that very much. There are two different, or two aspects of that that are different from sitting in the High Court. First of all I am sitting on the CFA as a part-time judge. It’s more enjoyable being a part-time judge than a full-time one. Of course you don’t feel that sense of grind which you feel at times if you’re a permanent judge sitting on a court over a long period of time. But the second feature of sitting on the CFA is that I began sitting on that Court at the time when courts began to interpret the provisions of the Basic Law of Hong Kong’s Constitution. And it’s very different interpreting the provisions of a new Constitution at the very beginning from interpreting the provisions of an old Constitution after a lot of, as it were, work has already been done on it. You feel at times in the medium of the High Court that you’ve got to contend with a lot of overburden. You never have that feeling in Hong Kong. And the great thing about it is that it instils in you a sense of history and appreciation of the work done by those great judges who were the first High Court judges. I mean, they were remarkably good judges. They quickly established a reputation for the High Court as one of the leading courts in the world, and what’s more, they stood up to the Privy Council, and in their first big confrontation with the Privy Council they won out, and you should never forget their contribution to the development of Australian democracy and to the Australian Constitution. (See Deakin v Webb [1904] HCA 57.) Continue reading

The High Court Upholds the ‘PNG Solution’: Plaintiff S156/2013

By Houston Ash

Plaintiff S156/2013 Case Page

While the legality of the Australian government’s policy of transferring Sri Lankan asylum seekers to that country’s navy is likely to be considered by the High Court shortly, a separate challenge to another pillar of the government’s migration strategy was recently dismissed. In Plaintiff S156/2013 v Minister of Immigration and Border Protection [2014] HCA 22, the High Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the provisions of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) under which asylum seekers are removed from Australia’s ‘migration zone’ to either Papua New Guinea or the Republic of Nauru. The Court also confirmed the validity of the decisions made by the Minister of Immigration and Border Protection to designate PNG as a ‘regional processing country’ and to direct officers of what is now the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to take particular classes of ‘unauthorised maritime arrivals’ to PNG or Nauru.

The provisions in question, ss 198AB and 198AD of the Migration Act, were introduced by the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Act 2012 (Cth). As discussed further below, these provisions were the Parliament’s response to the High Court’s decision in Plaintiff M70/2011 v Minister for Immigration and Citizenship [2011] HCA 32, which scuppered the former government’s so-called ‘Malaysia Solution’.

The challenged provisions
Section 198AD of the Migration Act requires ‘unlawful non-citizens’ who are also ‘unauthorised maritime arrivals’ to be taken to a ‘regional processing country’ as soon as reasonably practicable. If there are two or more such countries, s 198AD(5) requires the Minister to provide a written direction specifying the country to which a person or class of persons is to be taken. Section 198AB allows the Minister, by legislative instrument, to designate that a country is a ‘regional processing country’ if the Minister thinks it is in the national interest to do so. In considering the national interest, the Minister must have regard to whether the country has given any assurances that it:

  • (a)   Will not expel the person to a country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened; and
  • (b)   Will permit an assessment of whether the person is a refugee within the meaning of art 1A of the Refugees Convention.

Section 198AB(4) provides that any such assurances do not need to be legally binding. Continue reading

Williams [No 2] Symposium: Some Curiosities and Further Thoughts on Williams [No 2]

By Benjamin Saunders

Williams [No 2] Case Page

This post makes some additional comments about the Court’s reasoning with respect to executive power (the subject of an earlier post by Cheryl Saunders (no relation to the author)) and also briefly discusses the Commonwealth waiving debts owed to it as a consequence of the Court’s finding of invalidity.

Executive power, British and Australian
I do not disagree with the opinions expressed by Cheryl Saunders in her earlier post, that ‘Williams [No 2] does not add a great deal of substance to the conclusions about the ambit of the executive power of the Commonwealth reached in Williams [No 1]’. However, I wish to make some additional observations, namely that the Court in Williams [No 2] reached its decision about the scope of executive power in an unusual way. Continue reading

Williams [No 2] Symposium: Thomas Bland on the Plaintiff’s Standing and the Commonwealth’s Attempt to Re-Open Williams [No 1]

By Thomas Bland

Williams [No 2] Case Page

In Williams [No 1], the plaintiff leapt over a procedural hurdle — whether he, as a parent of children who attended a school in which a chaplain was employed pursuant to the National School Chaplaincy Program, had standing to challenge the funding arrangements underlying that program. In Williams [No 2] the Commonwealth defendants, faced with Mr Williams’ second challenge to the funding arrangements, failed to surmount a different hurdle when the Court denied them leave to challenge the correctness of the Court’s decision in Williams [No 1].

In this post, I will briefly examine how the Court in Williams [No 2] dealt with the plaintiff’s standing and the Commonwealth’s ill-fated attempt to have Williams [No 1] overruled, and I will make some observations on the Court’s approach to these issues.

Standing
One of the questions reserved for the Full Court in Williams [No 2] was whether the plaintiff had standing to bring the challenge to s 32B of the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 (Cth). The Commonwealth conceded in its written submissions that, ‘in light of the position taken by the [intervening States]’, the plaintiff had standing. The Court accepted this concession and answered the question thus: ‘[I]n the circumstances of this case, and to the extent necessary for the determination of this matter, yes’ (at [28]). (The Court explained the reasons for the qualified answer, but they are irrelevant for present purposes.)

The Commonwealth’s concession was doubtless informed by the Court’s holding on the plaintiff’s standing in Williams [No 1]. Given that counsel for the Commonwealth (as discussed further below) went on to challenge the substantive holdings in Williams [No 1], it is perhaps unsurprising that they conceded the standing point. If the Court held that the plaintiff lacked standing, the Commonwealth’s opportunity to have Williams [No 1] overruled would not arise. However, the Court’s holding on standing in Williams [No 1] arguably signals a departure from its previous practice. It is worth considering whether this is so, and if so, what this might mean for future litigants. Continue reading

Williams [No 2] Symposium: Cheryl Saunders on the Executive Power of the Commonwealth after Williams [No 2]

By Professor Cheryl Saunders

Williams [No 2] Case Page

Williams [No 2] does not add a great deal of substance to the conclusions about the ambit of the executive power of the Commonwealth reached in Williams [No 1]. The principal question for the Court was the validity of the legislation that had been enacted in the wake of Williams [No 1], to provide a loose statutory base for the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program (NSCSWP) and more than 400 other executive spending programs. The reasoning of the Court on the issues raised by this question is dealt with elsewhere in the symposium. In brief, the six sitting Justices, in two separate judgements, rejected arguments that either the benefits to students power (s 51(xxiiiA)) or the corporations power (s 51(xx)) provided a head of power for the legislation in relation to the NSCSWP. The Court did not need to determine whether the covering provisions in the Appropriation Acts provided the necessary legislative base for executive spending programs, because similar questions about a head of power arose: [55]. Nor did it need to reach the more novel question of whether the challenged legislation involved a delegation of legislative power that was so excessive or vague that it transgressed the Constitution in some other way: [36].

The ambit of federal executive power nevertheless was in issue in Williams [No 2], not least because the Commonwealth sought to reopen Williams [No 1] (for this argument, see [59]). In place of the majority holding in Williams [No 1], the Commonwealth argued for an understanding of s 61 that identified minimal limitations on the ability of the Executive to contract and spend: [68]. Alternatively, if the executive power also was limited by subject matter, the Commonwealth argued that federal power to contract and spend ‘extends to all those matters that are reasonably capable as being seen of national benefit or concern; that is, all those matters that befit the national government of the federation, as discerned from the text and structure of the Constitution’: [70]. Had either argument succeeded, the legislation might have been upheld as an exercise of s 51(xxxix) in combination with s 61 or even ss 81 and 83. Indeed, on the basis of the first argument, at least, there would have been no need for legislation at all. Both, however, were rejected, as arguments that, effectively, had been tried and had failed before ([69], [71]). Williams [No 1] was not reopened and the majority holding stands. Continue reading

Williams [No 2] Symposium: Simon Evans on Benefits to Students

By Professor Simon Evans

Williams [No 2] Case Page

The National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) was struck down in Williams [No 2] because, the High Court concluded, the Commonwealth legislation that purported to authorise it was not a law with respect to ‘benefits to students’.

Williams [No 2] does not determine the fate of this legislation more generally or of the myriad other programs it was enacted to validate following Williams [No 1].

Nor does it deal a permanently fatal blow to the NSCP. But it does raise serious issues for Commonwealth laws and schemes that deal with students and education. This post is an initial sketch of some of those issues and the questions that will have to be addressed in coming months. Continue reading

Williams [No 2] Symposium: Graeme Hill on Narrowing the Issues

By Graeme Hill, Barrister

Williams [No 2] Case Page

The High Court delivered its judgment in Williams [No 2] only 6 weeks after the hearing, much more quickly than is usual in complex constitutional cases. One reason the Court was able to deliver its judgment so quickly was that the Court carefully narrowed the issues to be dealt with. The Court concentrated on whether the particular item in the Financial Management and Accountability Regulations 1997 (Cth) (FMA Regulations) that referred to the school chaplaincy program was supported by a head of Commonwealth legislative power. The Court’s negative answer to that question meant it was unnecessary to deal with the other arguments raised by the plaintiff.

The Court’s reasoning in this respect is orthodox and, I would suggest, appropriate in this case.

Narrowing the issues
Williams [No 2] considered the validity of the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Act (No 3) 2012 (Cth) (FFLA Act), which was enacted days after, and in response to, the High Court’s judgment in Williams [No 1]. In outline, the FFLA Act amended the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 (Cth) (FMA Act) and FMA Regulations in an attempt to confer statutory authority on the Commonwealth executive to make payments under existing grants and programs, including the school chaplaincy program. Continue reading

Question: When Does a Litigant Want to be a Fiduciary? Answer: When It Involves Tax Law: Howard v Commissioner of Taxation

By Michael Crawford

Howard v Commissioner of Taxation Case Page

Why would a litigant want to be a fiduciary?
The law reports of all common law jurisdictions are replete with cases in which fiduciaries who have obtained a financial gain furiously deny that the gain constitutes an unauthorised benefit or that it was obtained in circumstances in which their duty to their principal was in conflict with their personal interest. It is somewhat of a novelty, however, to come across a case in which a fiduciary implores a court to find that he has obtained a benefit in breach of his obligations and that the fruit of his wrongdoing should thus be held on constructive trust for the benefit of his principal. Yet Howard v Commission of Taxation [2014] HCA 21 is just such a case. And why, one might ask, would a fiduciary urge upon a court such an apparently perverse submission? The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is tax law.

The appellant was one of six people who entered into a fiduciary joint venture, the purpose of which was to exploit the investment potential of an underperforming golf course in Victoria. The plan agreed upon was to purchase the course, find a long-term tenant to operate it and then sell the reversion to a third party for a profit. The profit realised from the sale would then be divided six ways. The benefit of this strategy was that it would yield a more or less immediate profit, referred to as a ‘day one’ profit, for the participants. Continue reading

The Third Part in a Trilogy on the Accusatorial Trial: Lee v The Queen

By Anna Dziedzic

Lee v The Queen Case Page

In the past year, the High Court has handed down three decisions dealing with the relationship between the compulsory examination powers given to various Australian crime commissions and the principles of a fair criminal trial.

In X7 v Australian Crime Commission [2013] HCA 29, a majority of the Court held that the compulsory examination powers given to the Australian Crime Commission did not permit the ACC to examine a person charged with an offence about matters relating to the criminal charges that he or she was facing. A compulsory examination in these circumstances would fundamentally depart from the accusatorial nature of Australia’s criminal justice system. The judges in the majority refused to interpret the Australian Crime Commission Act 2002 (Cth) as working such a fundamental change to common law principles.

In Lee v NSW Crime Commission [2013] HCA 39 (Lee #1) the High Court considered the same issue but in relation to different legislation. In Lee #1 a majority of the Court held that the Criminal Assets Recovery Act 1990 (NSW) did permit a compulsory examination on matters relating to pending criminal charges. In this case, the majority considered that the words of the statute clearly disclosed an intention to abrogate the right to silence while providing adequate safeguards to ensure that any future criminal trial was conducted fairly.

The third and most recent case on this issue was decided last month. Lee v The Queen [2014] HCA 20 (Lee #2) saw the appellants in Lee #1 return to the High Court to appeal their convictions for drug and firearms offences. In a unanimous judgment, the High Court held that the appellants had not received a fair trial because confidential transcripts of their compulsory examinations before the NSW Crime Commission had been given to the Director of Public Prosecutions to assist it to prepare the prosecution’s case. The High Court held that this was a fundamental departure from the requirements of the accusatorial trial and resulted in a miscarriage of justice.

The decision in Lee #2 has been welcomed as a victory for the right to silence. In this post, I suggest that while Lee #2 does uphold the common law principles which guide the role of the prosecution in criminal trials, the case does not fully resolve the questions that arise from the close relationship between the state authorities that investigate crime and those that prosecute it. Continue reading

Can Reckless Abuse of Authority Amount to Rape?: Gillard v The Queen

By Dr Dale Smith

Gillard v The Queen Case Page

A man allegedly makes a 17-year-old perform a sexual act on him in the presence of her 16-year-old sister. He is prosecuted on the basis that neither sister consented. One argument that the prosecution puts to the jury is that any consent was negated by the man’s abuse of a position of authority or trust — he was a family friend and had known both girls since they were young.

In Gillard v The Queen [2014] HCA 16, the High Court considered what the prosecution had to prove about the mind of this man in order to convict him of crimes akin to rape. Did he have to know that he was abusing his authority or trust? Or was recklessness about that enough (and, if so, about what)? The High Court’s unanimous answer casts new light on how the Court interprets modern statutes that define sexual offences such as rape.

The alleged abuse of authority
From 1993 until 2000, two sisters spent part of the summer school holidays staying with Michael Gillard at his Canberra home. Gillard knew both sisters, born in the early 1980s, from a young age. He had met their father while serving in the Army and the two men had become friends. It was subsequently alleged that Gillard had committed a number of sexual offences against both girls while they were staying with him in Canberra. Some of the offences were alleged to have been committed against the oldest before she turned 16, while others were alleged to have been committed after both turned 16. At his trial, he was convicted of some, but not all, of the offences that were alleged to have taken place before the older sister turned 16.

At issue in the High Court was his further convictions for four offences alleged to have occurred after both sisters had turned 16, including the incident described above. Continue reading

The High Court Upholds the Forfeiture of a Drug Offender’s Castle: Attorney-General (NT) v Emmerson

By Dr Lael Weis

Attorney-General (NT) v Emmerson Case Page

Should the state be able to seize ‘all or any’ property ‘owned or controlled by’ persons convicted of multiple drug-related offences, regardless of the connection of that property to the commission of crime?

In a recently decided case, Attorney General (NT) v Emmerson [2014] HCA 13, the High Court upheld Northern Territory criminal forfeiture legislation that authorises exactly that. In upholding the legislation, the Court held that the constitutional requirement that laws for the acquisition of property must be on ‘just terms’ is categorically inapplicable to criminal forfeiture, no matter how harsh, on the basis that it falls within a historically well-established exemption for punitive laws.

Reginald Emmerson’s crimes and possessions
In February 2011 Reginald William Emmerson was charged with two offences: the supply of 18.6646 kilograms of cannabis (with an estimated commercial value between $184,500 and $918,400, depending on the quantity in which it was sold), and the possession of $70,500 obtained from the commission of drug related-offences in the Northern Territory. In conjunction with prior convictions for possession and use (but notably not the supply or sale) of drugs, this made him eligible to have all of his property restrained in anticipation of him becoming eligible to be declared a ‘drug trafficker’ under s 36A of the Misuse of Drugs Act (NT) if he was convicted. The Director of Public Prosecutions applied to restrain his property and, after his conviction for the February 2011 charges, to have the Northern Territory Supreme Court make such a declaration. The sole and direct legal consequence of that declaration was forfeiture of Mr Emmerson’s restrained property to the Territory, pursuant to s 94(1) of the Criminal Property Forfeiture Act (NT). That particular section of the Forfeiture Act provides for the forfeiture of ‘all property … that is owned or effectively controlled by the person’ and ‘all property that was given away by the person, whether before or after the commencement of this Act’ for any person declared a ‘drug trafficker’ under s 36A of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

When Mr Emmerson was ultimately convicted of the February 2011 charges in September of that year, he forfeited property valued in excess of $850,000 to the Northern Territory, including: his home, 12 vehicles (including a ute, a boat and trailer and motorcycles) and bank accounts. All parties accepted that, apart from the $70,050 seized from Mr Emmerson’s most recent offence, the forfeited property had been acquired through legitimate means and had no connection to any criminal offence.

Mr Emmerson challenged the forfeiture on two bases: (1) on the basis that the relevant statutory provisions violated the separation of judicial power under ch III of the Commonwealth Constitution, and (2) on the basis that it effected an acquisition of property that was otherwise than on ‘just terms’ in contravention of S 50(1) of the Northern Territory Self-Government Act 1978 (Cth).

Both challenges were rejected by a 6:1 majority of the High Court (with Gageler J not deciding the ch III issue, and dissenting on the property issue).

With apologies to any Kable fans out there, this entry focuses exclusively on the acquisition of property issue. What follows is a fairly lengthy — and, OK yes, at times indulgent — discussion of some of the ins and outs and twists and turns of constitutional property jurisprudence issues implicated by the Court’s strict adherence to this categorical exemption for forfeiture laws in the Emmerson case.

Those of you who are not particularly interested in going on such a ride are probably better jumping off here, and checking out the judgment summary.

For the rest of you, welcome aboard. As Justice Hayne mused in oral argument, ‘[h]ours of innocent amusement await us on acquisition, do they not … ?’ Continue reading