A Threshold of Materiality for Judicial Review: Common Sense or Injustice? Hossain and SZMTA

By Jules O’Donnell

What happens when a government decision-maker breaches a condition regulating the exercise of a statutory power? In what circumstances will an exercise of a power ­— for example, the issue of a licence, the refusal of a visa, or the seizure of property — be rendered invalid because of that breach? Alternatively, when is the breach considered a mere technicality?

In two recent cases, the High Court has revised the way it approaches these questions. Hossain v Minister for Immigration and Border Protection [2018] HCA 34, decided last year, established that administrative decisions are generally not to be invalidated on the basis of procedural errors that are immaterial. Put another way, immaterial errors are not, absent some contrary indication, jurisdictional errors. This proposition has been referred to as the ‘threshold of materiality’. Minister for Immigration and Border Protection v SZMTA [2019] HCA 3, decided in March this year, confirmed that the plaintiff must prove that the breach in question was material to the outcome in order for the decision to be set aside.

In this post, I argue that the primary appeal of the threshold of materiality is that it gives system-wide minimum content to the concept of jurisdictional error. This is significant because the Court has generally resisted developing general norms in this area, instead insisting that jurisdictional error is strictly tethered to the statutory scheme in question. A more generally applicable standard of jurisdictional error could, in some cases, provide much needed relief to courts that must otherwise resort to contestable speculation about legislative purpose.

I also highlight two remaining uncertainties surrounding the materiality threshold. First, the Court has not yet provided a clear justification for why it applies. Its doctrinal precariousness leaves it susceptible to being overwhelmed by exceptions (a number of which have already been hinted at). Second, the plaintiff’s new burden of proof may introduce complexity to judicial review proceedings. New forms of evidence may now be admissible, and courts may be called upon to consider matters that are typically reserved for merits review Continue reading