[EDIT: Here, at last, the post VCAT suppressed, originally written over a month ago. Who knows why the suppression was ordered or lifted? The case is now available online.]
He’s baaaack! Giuseppe De Simone, readers will recall, scored a brief Charter mention on Halloween in his succesful appeal against his conviction for biting a police officer in the aftermath of a supermarket dispute involving an ice-cream he ate. But that isn’t the end of his business in Victoria’s judicial system or, for that matter, his significance for the Charter. In a recent VCAT judgment, he had another bite of the Charter cherry. Actually, it was his third. And it raises one novel issue (involving Charter s. 33, the Supreme Court referral provision) and a host of familiar ones.
The context is a building contract dispute relating to the Seachange Retirement Village at Ocean Grove (which, for those who don’t know, is quite close to Barwon Heads, which, for those who don’t know, is the real life location of Pearl Bay, which, for those who don’t know, lucky you.) The owners of the land have sued the builders for non-performance (after the Charter s. 49(2) cut-off date, it seems) and the builders have counterclaimed for misleading conduct. In the thick of things is De Simone, managing director of the owners. On 27th July 2006, two days after the Charter became law, he sent the builders, who said they needed evidence of financing for insurance purposes, a letter on an accountant’s letterhead that appeared to confirm financing. Alas, it seems, it didn’t, but was instead a letter about a subsidiary money matter. This led to De Simone being personally joined in the action. The recent VCAT case was De Simone’s attempt to stay that part of the action.
But, before we get there, there’s an earlier Charter angle. The original VCAT officer appointed to the case early last year was Senior Member Roger Young. Young fairly quickly started to have problems with De Simone, who, it turns out, ‘has studied law but has not been a legal practitioner’. The worst sort! De Simone represented himself (for the most part) in the various directions and interlocutory hearings that arose last year and he and Young obviously didn’t get along, with Young often shutting down De Simone’s contributions (and pointedly suggesting he get a lawyer) and De Simone making applications for Young to step down due to apprehended bias (one of which was prompted by the ‘lawyer’ suggestion, which Young conceded was a lame joke.) In the end, it seems, Young just started to lose it, stopping De Simone from making relevant submissions, criticising De Simone for skipping a meeting that Young had excused him from and, most damningly, saying things like: ‘Gee whiz, I’m getting sick of you!’ (Surely likely to be the last non-ironic use of the term ‘gee whiz’ ever.) So, in the middle of this year, in Seachange Management Pty Ltd v Bevnol Constructions & Developments Pty Ltd & Ors  VCAT 1479, VCAT’s (then) acting President Ian Ross exercised his powers to take over the case, citing apprehended bias, De Simone’s fair hearing right and Charter s. 24. The latter was a classic passing mention, with all the lameness and fuzziness that follows from it. Fortunately, Ross’s latest Charter judgment on the case is more substantial.
De Simone’s case for having the civil claim against him stayed arises because the builders not only sued in VCAT but also referred De Simone’s alleged financing letter shenanigans to the Geelong police. De Simone has not yet been charged (either at the time of his application, in July, or the time of the ruling, in late November), but it was accepted by all parties in the hearing that the probability of a charge of obtaining financial advantage by deception was ‘high’, although the time-line is not known. De Simone’s application therefore raised the same issue as Trevor Flugge‘s (successful) stay application: whether the civil proceedings should be stayed to avoid prejudicing the defence of the future criminal proceedings and, in particular, whether the unpopular 1982 judgment of McMahon v Gould, which generally favoured the rights of civil litigants, should be applied. However, whereas Flugge’s action faced some significant barriers to raising the Charter (due to the federal context and the Charter’s lack of direct application to common law rules), De Simone’s action lacks those barriers: VCAT’s jurisdiction is both Victorian and statutory.
The initial (and most novel) issue in Seachange Mangement Pty Ltd v Bevnol Constructions and Developments Pty Ltd  VCAT 2629 is whether the questions pose by De Simone’s Charter challenge should be resolved by VCAT or by the Supreme Court. De Simone requested the later. Here’s the relevant Charter provision:
33(1) If, in a proceeding before a court or tribunal, a question of law arises that relates to the application of this Charter or a question arises with respect to the interpretation of a statutory provision in accordance with this Charter, that question may be referred to the Supreme Court if- (a) a party has made an application for referral; and (b) the court or tribunal considers that the question is appropriate for determination by the Supreme Court.
(2) If a question has been referred to the Supreme Court under subsection (1), the court or tribunal referring the question must not- (a) make a determination to which the question is relevant while the referral is pending; or (b) proceed in a manner or make a determination that is inconsistent with the opinion of the Supreme Court on the question.
(3) If a question is referred under subsection (1) by the Trial Division of the Supreme Court, the referral is to be made to the Court of Appeal.
This provision is the result of a recommendation by the Consultation Committee. (Interestingly, and pertinently, the Committee’s draft also required a referral to the Court of Appeal instead of the Supreme Court if the referral was from a VCAT President or Vice-President, but that equitable treatment of VCAT and the Supreme Court was excised by the meddlers. ) The Committee explained that sometimes lower courts ‘need guidance on an interpretative question’ and that the Committee ‘sees value’ in having the Supreme Court decide them (following notice to the A-G and VEORHC.) So, it’s another plank in the Committee’s ‘don’t let lesser lawyers or officers stuff up our precious Charter; that’s a job for the Attorney-General and the Supreme Court’ philosophy. However, unlike the risible Charter s. 35, this provision is ameliorated by the sensible constraints of requiring both a party request and a determination by the first instance officer, before the higher authorities stick their collective nose in.
God knows why De Simone made his application (relating to both the application of Charter s. 24 directly to VCAT and its application to the procedural provisions in the VCAT Act), though you’d have to wonder whether he just wanted to delay the civil claim against him under Charter. s33(2)(a), which would probably be as good as getting a stay. But the interesting question is when and on what basis such an application should be granted under Charter. s. 33(1)(b). Neither the Consultation Committee’s report nor the EM given even the slightest hint of when a question ‘is appropriate for determination by the Supreme Court’ [sic - or the Court of Appeal.] Here’s Ross’s take:
I am not persuaded that it is appropriate to refer either of these questions to the Supreme Court pursuant to s 38(1) [sic]. The issues raised by the questions were fully ventilated in the proceedings as was the application of the relevant principles to the facts of this matter. In my view the most expeditious course is to determine the application. Any party aggrieved by the decision may exercise their appeal rights and the issues sought to be determined by the referral application may be determined in that context.
Well, I’m not persuaded by this. Surely, the major issue under Charter s. 33(1(b) is whether or not the question is important enough to require authoritative determination, both for the benefit of the immediate matter and for other similar proceedings. The application of McMahon v Gould in VCAT matters would seem to fit the bill, especially given the enormous criticism of that case, including recently in the Supreme Court. The major counter-factor would be the impact of Charter s. 33(2)(a) on the proceeding itself. Perhaps that’d be a weighty factor, but Ross doesn’t discuss whether or not the builders or owners would be prejudiced by delaying the counter-claim against De Simone (who, it must be remembered, was a late joinder to the original dispute between the two companies.) Of course, there’s a certain sense in Ross’s notion that the matter could be dealt with by the Supreme Court on appeal (and that there’s no reason why Ross can’t resolve the matter himself), but that sense seems to be at odds with the whole (elitist) point of Charter s. 33.
Personally, if the parties are willing – or if one party is keen and the other isn’t prejudiced overly – it strikes me as a good thing to fast-track major issues to the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, at least while so many crucial things about the Charter remain unresolved. For instance, what really is the point of Bell J’s current lengthy hearings about mental health, FOI and the definition of public authority, when those matters are all so contentious that they will inevitably have to be sorted out by the Court of Appeal (and perhaps the High Court)? If the parties are fine with doing things the slow way, then I have no objection. But otherwise? The quicker these major questions about how the Charter works are authoratitively resolved, the better, surely?
Anyhow, for better or for worse, Ross proceeded to resolve the matter himself. The good news is that he (and, it seems, the lawyers, and maybe even De Simone) were well versed in Charter Operative Provisions 101:
The Charter may impact on VCAT’s work in three ways:
- if VCAT is a ‘public authority’ s 38(1) provides that it would be unlawful for it to act incompatibly with human rights (subject to the exceptions in ss 338(2) and (4));
- all statutory provisions must be interpreted in a way that is compatible with human rights (s 32(1)); and
- the Charter applies to courts and tribunals to the extent that they have functions under Part 2 and Division 3 of Part 3 of the Charter (s 6(2)(b)).
Oh, thank you Ian Ross! You can read! I’m not being facetious. You are streets ahead of most of your supposed betters on the Supreme Court: the Bongiornos, the Lasries, the Hollingworths, etc. You’ve even noticed the exceptions to the conduct mandate, including the most important one. Praise be. After nearly a year of blogging this stuff, I’m genuinely impressed. Which is actually tragic. Alas – readers of the blog know what’s coming! – Ross’s approach to the subtleties of the Charter didn’t quite match his precise grasp of the basics. Continue reading