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  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  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  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  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. The judgment whose citation is provided by the High Court registry –  ACTCA 15 – is not currently available on court, public or commercial webpages. All we know is that it appears to be a criminal judgment and the Crown is listed as the applicant in the High Court. A possible explanation for the judgment’s non-availability is that it involves a defendant who was convicted at trial but who successfully obtained an order for a new trial on appeal on the basis that some of the evidence against him or her should not have been admitted (a finding that will have to be kept from any future jury.) I am not aware of an earlier occasion when the High Court has granted special leave in this circumstance. Crown appeals to the Court are rare and all the ones I am aware of are appeals against orders of stays or acquittals, rather than new trials.