In a decision this week, Aubrey v The Queen  HCA 18, a 4-1 majority of the High Court overruled an 1888 decision of the Court of Crown Cases Reserved (a predecessor to England’s Court of Appeals), which had held that a man who gave his wife gonorrhoea could not be convicted of ‘inflicting’ harm. Holding that the English decision should not be applied to the case of Michael Aubrey, a NSW man convicted of maliciously inflicting grievous bodily harm by giving his sexual partner HIV in 2004, the majority said:
Granted, until this case, Clarence had not been distinguished or judicially doubted in New South Wales. It was assumed that proof of an offence against s 35 of the Crimes Act necessitated proof of a direct causing of some grievous physical injury with a weapon or blow… It may also be accepted that the Court is ordinarily loath to overturn a long-standing decision about the meaning of a provision unless there is doubt about it, or to depart from the view of judges who, because of proximity in time to the passage of the legislation in question, were more aware of the reasons underlying the legislation. But that is not this case.
The majority listed nine reasons why Clarence should no longer be followed, including contrary pre-1888 authority, the lack of a single majority view in the case, two forceful dissenting judgments, subsequent discoveries about infection, the subsequent abandonment of the presumption of consent to marital sex and the more recent rejection of Clarence in England’s courts.
Few, other than people in a similar position to Aubrey himself, will mourn the death of Clarence. However, the majority’s approach to overruling that decision is an interesting contrast to the Court’s refusal last year to overturn its own little-loved decisions on complicity Continue reading