Giuseppe De Simone redux

[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 [2008] 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 [2008] 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

A very Charter Christmas

shacIt must be the silly season, because why else would The Age cover the Charter?:

STUDENT squatters will try to use Victoria’s charter of human rights to stop their eviction from Melbourne University-owned buildings. The students — who have been occupying the Faraday Street terrace houses in Carlton for the past four months — were summonsed to appear in the Victorian Supreme Court yesterday for an eviction hearing. The Student Housing Action Collective want to use the terraces to create a student housing co-operative, but the university wants to develop it into off-campus student space.

Teishan Ahearne, from the collective, accused the university of using the Christmas break to move against the squatters. “The university is playing Mr Scrooge, attempting to evict homeless students on the eve of Christmas. Their actions are utterly unjust and sneaky,” she said. Yesterday the court heard that the university had begun the proceedings to comply with a building notice issued by the City of Melbourne. That notice said the buildings had to be vacated by January 7.

But Chris Povey, for the students, said his clients would seek to invoke Victoria’s charter of human rights to prevent the university from moving them on. He told the court that should the students be evicted many of them faced homelessness. Justice Cavanough agreed to adjourn the hearing to January 5, but ordered any applications under the human rights charter had to be filed with the court by December 30.

So, the students can spend Christmas in their terrace houses, but, thanks to nasty Charter s. 33 and Practice Note No. 3, they’ll have to spend their holidays swatting up on the Charter.

Alas, as I’ve discussed several times on this blog, the intersection of tenancy law and human rights law is a perfect storm of the Charter’s curmudgeonly operative provisions:

  • First, the students need to find a right that has been breached. In conrtast to some of the more heartrending (or maddening) human rights tenancy cases of yore, this one doesn’t seem to involve any families or kids, so Charter s. 17 won’t help. Nor are there discrimination issues. So, everything will have to rest on the narrow shoulders of Charter s. 13(a)’s right against arbitrary interferences in the ‘home’.
  • Second, there’s the problem that the Residential Tenancies Act‘s statutory language isn’t exactly amenable to re-interpretation to prevent ‘eviction into homelessness’. And there’s also the problem that any such friendly interpretation will be contrary to the rather unfriendly purposes of statutory tenancy law (and, if Hansen rules, may go further than the reasonable limits jurisprudence allows.) (I’ll take the students’ word that they have nowhere to go, though it does remind me of some former friends from my uni days who stole from the Salvo’s. ‘Who’s poorer than us?’, they asked. Fortunately, they both have jobs in top overseas unis now. Maybe that theft let them crawl out of the poverty spiral.)
  • Third, there’s the conduct mandate route. But: (a) is the Uni a public authority?; (b) is eviction incompatible with the Charter right against arbitrary interference in the home?; (c) does the RTA provide the uni with Charter s. 38(2) cover? (d) is relief against eviction one of the non-Charter remedies that can squeeze through the thicket of Charter s. 39?

Bah humbug!. But at least the students may emerge (from their studies and their terrace houses) with some very handy expertise on the limits to Victoria’s Charter….

(Charterblog will, unsurprisingly, go quiet for a couple of days. Alas, there’ll be some more surprising quiet not too long after that. See the flurry of posts around New Years’ Eve….)

The Charter vs VGSO

Well, the year hasn’t ended with a bang, but there’ve been heaps of Charter whimpers, even one in the High Court. But, before I get to all of those, there’s also been some negative press about the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office, which raises (in my mind at least) some interesting Charter issues.

One story involves an intra-University dispute:

Last week, government solicitor John Cain jnr sent a letter to James Doughney, a member of the university’s governing council, demanding he publicly apologise for “false and defamatory allegations” in an attack on a plan by university leadersto cut jobs. The letter says the university’s chancellor, Supreme Court judge Frank Vincent, and vice-chancellor Elizabeth Harman, reserve their rights to take legal action if Dr Doughney does not withdraw and apologise for his comments.

In October, The Age revealed Dr Doughney had sent a six-page letter to state and federal MPs accusing Professor Harman of using a “pea-and-thimble trick” to create a cash crisis to justify slashing 270 jobs. With Victoria University and the tertiary union in an industrial dispute, Mr McGowan said the defamation threat was an attempt to intimidate Dr Doughney in his role as state president of the union. Dr Doughney, an economist and elected staff representative on the university council, has said it was extraordinary for the chancellor to use a government solicitor in a bid to “gag” an academic.

As they say, disputes within Universities are so bitter precisely because so little is at stake. This story really only got attention because it involves some non-University players: a sitting judge and the head of the VGSO. The NTEU thought that the government should butt out, but the Attorney-General snapped back that Victoria Uni is the government:

Mr Hulls’ spokeswoman, Meaghan Shaw, said Victoria University was a statutory entity. She said the institution had been a client of the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office for some years.

But sometimes it’s not so fun to be the government, depending on whether you fall within the definition of public authority:

4(1) For the purposes of this Charter a public authority is-

(a) a public official within the meaning of the Public Administration Act 2004; or

(b) an entity established by a statutory provision that has functions of a public nature; or

(c) an entity whose functions are or include functions of a public nature, when it is exercising those functions on behalf of the State or a public authority (whether under contract or otherwise);…

So, who’s a public authority here?:

  • Victoria Uni? This isn’t entirely clear. It’s definitely a ‘statutory entity’, so it’s a public authority if it ‘has functions of a public nature’. Is tertiary education a function of a public nature? I bet that question taxes University heads every day.
  • Frank Vincent? (whose free speech credentials shone through in the Underbelly judgment.) This is clearer, but there’re two murky catches. He’s definitely a ‘public authority’, because he’s a ‘public official‘ under the Public Administration Act 2004, which includes judges, magistrates and the like. (He’s probably also a holder of a statutory office too, through his Chancellorship.) But one question is whether he’s a ‘court’ (or is that strictly his day job?) and then whether his Chancellorship is a non-administrative function under the dreaded Charter s. 4(1)(j). The other is whether his little letter to Dr Doughney, threatening a private law action, is an ‘act of a private nature’? So very murky. 
  • VGSO? This is the clearest. I can’t be bothered tracking down what VGSO is, exactly, but it’s almost certainly a public entity and, hence, a public official, and hence a public authority (gawd.) (If not, then things depend on the status of VU, as VGSO in this case is acting on behalf of them, right?) 

Anyway, the NTEU and Dr Doughney will be thrilled to know that that means that there’s no way that VGSO would do anything that was incompatible with human rights, including Dougney’s freedom of expression:

…[F]ormer Melbourne University vice-chancellor David Pennington said it was “silly” and “nonsense” for Dr Doughney to suggest the conflict was about academic freedom of speech. “It is not an issue of academic study and expertise, he told The Age. Professor Pennington said Dr Doughney was in a conflicted position in his roles as the elected academic representative on the university’s governing council and his position as the union’s state president. “This is a matter of political and industrial positioning.” Dr Doughney had the right to participate in the decision-making process of the university’s council, Professor Pennington said, but his primary responsibility was to the “institution and the corporation”.

Well, that’s a relief. But Doughney shouldn’t have worried anyway. Victoria’s top lawyer, Pamela Tate, is a member of the Australian Academy of Law and (until two months back) was on the advisory committee to Melbourne Law School’s Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies. No way would she have a bar of any infringements on academic freedom.

The other story is the long-running saga of Mark Morgan, the Castlemaine solicitor whose miseries started after he won a heady victory for the victims of some dodgy police conduct. The police, mostly still on the job, were too poor to pay, but Morgan initially got an order for Victoria to pick up the tab. Alas, that victory triggered demands from Morgan’s ‘no win no fee’ barristers that they get paid, which wasn’t looking like it’d happen anytime soon because Victoria was appealing. The barristers convinced Morgan, who was no longer acting in the case, that he should promise the court that he’d repay the fees to Victoria in the event that it won its appeal. Of course, Victoria did and Morgan is up for a lot of money, as neither the police officers (ever) nor  the barristers (initially) paid up. According to the Court of Appeal, the VGSO officer in charge named Hugh McArdle got pissed off at Morgan (in part because he mistakenly thought a failed contempt action by the barristers had Morgan’s backing) and threw the legal book at him, demanding payment despite further High Court proceedings and the absence of any time-condition on Morgan’s undertaking, and threatening and eventually bringing contempt actions.

Alas, McArdle’s contempt action was a bridge too far. This wasn’t clear at first, because County Court judge Pamela Jenkins found Morgan guilty and made nasty sentencing remarks that caused Morgan a world of trouble with the profession (which, of course, made it even more difficult for him to meet his debt to Victoria.) But, yesterday, in Morgan v State of Victoria [2008] VSCA 267, three appeal judges found that the contempt action was untenable in multiple ways, mostly connected to the failure of either the undertaking or later orders that replaced it to specify a time for Morgan to pay his debt. The Court gave Jenkins a big serve, for being overly happy to wave away service process rules,  for quoting a Bongiorno judgment out of context and for wrongly labelling Morgan’s wrongs extreme. Each of these errors probably piggybacks on errors by VGSO, which is the one who failed to comply with the rules and – just a guess, I dont know – just might have been the one who led Jenkins into error on Bongiorno’s wise words. The most newsworthy point is that the Court firmly disagreed with Jenkins sentencing remarks, instead noting that VGSO came to the party with very dirty hands:

Moreover, Victoria’s position was hardly that of the model litigant which it purports to be and should have been. Throughout, whatever be the explanation for it, Victoria’s position towards the appellant was very aggressive, repayment being sought prematurely and otherwise inappropriately, and contempt proceedings being threatened on several occasions and ultimately being brought when on proper analysis contempt could not be established.

Ooooh. See, it’s sometimes a good thing to be sued by the government!:

2. The obligation requires that the State of Victoria, its Departments and agencies:

(a) act fairly in handling claims and litigation brought by or against the State or an agency,

(c) avoid litigation, wherever possible,

(f) do not rely on technical defences unless the State’s or the agency’s interests would be prejudiced by the failure to comply with a particular requirement,

(g) do not take advantage of a claimant who lacks the resources to litigate a legitimate claim,…

But it’s not just the model litigant rules that VGSO is bound by. Continue reading

Hulls’s Charter

Rob Hulls’s most important contribution to Victorian human rights law, after the Charter itself, is his promulgation,  on the last Friday before the last Christmas before the Charter came into full operation, of regulations exempting Victoria’s three parole boards from the definition of a public authority and, hence, from the Charter’s conduct mandate:

38(1) Subject to this section, it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way that is incompatible with a human right or, in making a decision, to fail to give proper consideration to a relevant human right.

To my knowledge, the decision has only been mentioned three times by the government: (1) by VEOHRC in its annual report, where one of its few negative comments was the lack of transparency in the decision; (2) by Hulls at an estimates hearing, where he attributed it to concerns about the parole boards having to give natural justice, and (3) by the current chair of the Adult Parole Board in its annual report, where it applauded the decision as a ‘prudent and responsible step’. 

The exemption is due to expire in 15 days. Here’s what Hulls said in June about his decision as to whether or not to extend the exemption:

They will have to put to me not only a very strong argument as to why they should be further exempted for a period of time but also, if they were not exempted, what resources they believe they would require to fully adhere to the charter. It may not be just a question of resources; that is true. It may well be, on the decisions they make and the timeliness of those decisions that they are required to make when they are dealing with people’s liberty — they do not give reasons for their decisions, as you are probably aware — as they have initially put to me, that it is important that they continue to operate in that way. As judges they admit that in all likelihood they are denying people natural justice. But that has always been how the parole board operates and if you change that, and you put in place a whole range of appeal rights and they have to give voluminous reasons for decisions and the like, it would tie down the work of the parole boards and, in their view, they could well become unworkable. That is their argument. I want to see for myself and get a better feel for the way the boards operate and I will make a decision in due course. that this was done for a period.

And here’s what I said about that same decision:

Time for some hyperbole: when someone writes a history of the Charter a few decades from now, I think that Hull’s decision, whichever way it goes, will feature as a key decision on the path to the Charter’s ultimate fate, whatever that is.

The relevant Charter provision is this one:

46(1) The Governor in Council may make regulations for or with respect to any matter or thing required or permitted by this Charter to be prescribed or necessary to be prescribed to give effect to this Charter.

(2) Without limiting subsection (1), the Governor in Council may make regulations for or with respect to- (a) prescribing entities to be public authorities for the purposes of this Charter; and (b) prescribing entities not to be public authorities for the purposes of this Charter;…

Arguably, though, Hulls’s decision to promulgate the regulations or not is itself subject to the very conduct mandate that Hulls can exempt any public authority (himself included, presumably) from.

Today, a full four days earlier than I was expecting it, Rob Hulls committed to his choice:

Notice is hereby given under Section 17(2) of the Subordinate Legislation Act 1994 of the making of the following Statutory Rules: …

163. Statutory Rule: Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities (Public Authorities) Interim Regulations 2008

Authorising Act: Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006

Date of making: 16 December 2008

And here’s his choice:

Continue reading

Charter s. 39 vs tenants

The interaction between residential tenancy law and human rights law is a major issue, both here and in the UK. VCAT has already used the Charter to suggest a narrower reading of a provision of the Residential Tenancies Act that would allow eviction. But, in the UK, recent cases have suggested that the interpretation mandate and the conduct mandate have limitations (to preserve parliamentary sovereignty) that might make the Charter less effective as a relief against eviction for tenants than some people think. In particular, the interpretation mandate can’t be used to read broad limitations into a statutory eviction right and landlords who happen to be public authorities are probably fairly free to ‘give effect’ to their statutory eviction rights by acting more or less like private landlords. See here and here. A three-week old case  that just turned up on Austlii, confirms some of these limits and introduces a new one that’s unique to Victoria’s Charter, involving the first ever application of Charter s. 39 to refuse a remedy. Unfortunately, VCAT’s reasoning is more debatable. 

Director of Housing v IF [2008] VCAT 2413  involves, not eviction, but rather the Residential Tenancies Act‘s ‘compliance’ scheme, which consists of four stages: a ‘breach of duty‘ notice, a ‘compliance order‘ if the notice is breached,  a ‘notice to vacate‘ if the compliance order is breached, and, ultimately a ‘possession order‘ (i.e. eviction), if the notice isn’t complied with. Whew! In this case, the Director of Housing was attempting to get to the second stage with its tenant, IF. The problem was IF’s alleged conduct towards his neighbours:

The incidents described at the hearing by LS included once when IF threw a log of wood over the fence and hit LS’ wife on the head. LS said that he bought his son a small swimming pool but had to put it away and not allow him to use it. He described an occasion when IF exposed himself to the child. LS called the police, but when they came IF was in his underwear and so drunk that the police said they couldn’t do anything. LS said that every time his wife leaves for her work IF stalks her, walking behind her and calling her “bitch.” Once IF said to LS’ son “your dad is f…ing dead meat – we are going to get him killed.” There have been many threats of death. LS said that IF calls LS a “f…ing Columbian” and yells out that he is going to have LS killed. After the first hearing of this case, on 7 August 2008, LS had to call the police because IF was yelling out that he was going to have LS killed. LS said that IF yells abuse and threats over the fence, and so they have to stay inside and keep the back door locked.. Sometimes IF’s friend SW sits out the front with IF and also yells out abuse at L. LS said that last night – the night before this hearing – a neighbour died and IF, who had been drinking, was yelling out that “the f…ing Columbian killed her.

Broadly, the problem was IF’s alcoholism. LS’s difficulties had been going on for seven years, and (unsurprisingly) LS’s family was on a waiting list for alternative accommodation. A neighbour backed up LS’s account, but IF and IF’s friend blamed LS for the dispute. IF didn’t help his arguments much by threatening LS during the VCAT hearing.

On 24th June this year, the Director of Housing issued IF with a ‘breach of duty’ notice, specifying four incidents of abusive behaviour in the previous month in breach of a statutory duty to not ‘use the rented premises… in any manner that causes a nuisance.’ (The more-apt second part of that duty, which refers to the ‘reasonable peace, comfort and privacy’ of neighbouring premises, wasn’t cited.) The provision governing breach of duty notices states:

208(1) A person to whom a duty is owed under a duty provision or that person’s agent, may give a breach of duty notice to a person in breach of that duty.

(2) A notice under subsection (1) must- (a) specify the breach; and (b) give details of the loss or damage caused by the breach; and (c) require the person, within the required time after receiving the notice- (i) to remedy the breach if possible; or (ii) to compensate the person to whom the duty is owed; and (d) state that the person in breach must not commit a similar breach again; and (e) state that if the notice is not complied with- (i) an application for compensation or a compliance order may be made to the Tribunal…

If someone leaves something smelly in a common area, it makes sense to tell that person to ‘remedy’ that in the ‘required time’ (14 days in most cases) and to not to it again. But it’s not so clear how notices work when the breach of duty consists of a course of conduct that evinces itself occasionally, as happened with IF. What does it mean to ‘remedy’ such a breach within 14 days? And what actions amount to ‘commit[ing] a similar breach again’? These issues were squarely raised by IF, because his neighbours had a quiet month after the notice was given, but another incident (the first of several, apparently) occurred again on 24th July. Did that mean that IF hadn’t ‘complied‘ with the notice, thus allowing VCAT to issue a compliance order?

VCAT Member Geneveive Nihill considered whether Charter s. 32 required her to consider whether or not an interpretation of s. 208 as obliging IF to refrain from abusive behaviour beyond the 14 day remedy period was a limit on IF’s rights. Apparently adopting Tate’s three-step approach to the interpretation mandate, she held that s. 208(1)(d) ‘engages’ IF’s right to privacy but also engages the right to privacy of IF’s neighbours (by promoting them.) Nihill skipped onto Charter s. 7(2) and asked Tate’s third ‘justification’ question. Unsurprisingly, justification was straightforward, given that the compliance scheme merely piggy-backs onto existing legal duties of tenants, which in turn piggy-back onto rights of their own. As enforcement schemes go, the RT Act’s compliance scheme is amazingly attenuated, with multiple opportunities for VCAT review, so it easily satisfied Charter s. 7(2)(e)’s ‘minimal intrusion’ test and the broader ‘proportionality’ test.

This is all well and good, but Nihill’s analysis suffered by not expressly considering the middle step of whether or not s. 208(1)(d) limited Charter s. 13(a). That would have involved considering whether or not s. 208(1)(d) was ‘arbitrary’ or ‘unlawful’. Equally, she also skipped s. 7(2)’s ‘subject under law’ requirement. Both of these tests focus on whether or not s. 208(1)(d) imposes a clear obligation on IF. Arguably, given it’s inaptness to breaches that consist of repeated incidents, it doesn’t. Does s. 208(1)(d) apply forever? Will a single moment of abuse breach it? IF, arguably, had no clear guidance on what would be a breach. Nihill was certainly aware of this problem:

I agree that there may be a different interpretation of the operation of section 208 in the light of different facts, and in particular if a person caused a nuisance in a way that was not manifestly similar to the nuisance described in the notice, or if the repeat of the nuisance took place a very long time after the notice of breach was served. In this case, I find that the breach committed on 24 July 2008 was the same as, or strikingly similar to, the previous breaches. I find that the period of time that has passed is not so long as to make it unfair or unlikely that the tenant would be aware that he was breaching the notice.

That’s all very reasonable, of course, but it treats the task of interpretation as one that can vary depending on the facts before the tribunal. As the UK tenancy cases argued, interpretation doesn’t involve declaring a statute applicable or not to a particular factual scenario, but rather developing a broad principle and seeing if the words can be interpreted to fit it. It may well be that the only way to make s. 208(1)(d) Charter-compliant (in the sense of not capturing the scenarios identified by Nihill and, in particular, providing intelligible guidance to people like IF about what they can and cannot do) is to read it in so narrow a manner that it doesn’t capture IF’s conduct in this case. As it happens, I don’t think such a narrow reading of s. 208(1)(d) was necessary in this case. Moreover, if it was, I think there’s a good argument that it would conflict with the purpose of the provision and, arguably, the Charter rights of IF’s neighbours.

The interpretation mandate is too broad a remedy to fix a provision like s. 208(1)(d) which straddles too many scenarios, sometimes limiting a tenant’s rights, other times providing crucial support for the rights of landlords and neighbours. Instead, a more appropriate remedy is the conduct mandate. The conduct mandate, in public housing cases at least, allows s. 208(1)(d) to be given a broad reading, but potentially ameliorates some of its negative effects by barring public landlords from applying it in individual cases where it would work unreasonably. The good news is that just such an argument was made by IF:

The tenant has made extensive and interesting submissions about the landlord’s obligations under the Charter. Essentially the tenant has submitted that the landlord is a “public authority” under section 4 of the Charter, and is therefore required by section 38 to act compatibly with the Charter. It must do so, submitted the tenant, when exercising its powers under the Housing Act 1983 with respect to the acquisition, disposal, development and management of land. In managing this tenancy, including making the decisions to serve a notice of breach and to apply for a compliance order, the landlord exercised these powers. According to the tenant, it did not do so in a way that was compatible with the Charter. I agree that the Director of Housing is a public authority as defined in section 4 of the Charter. This is clearly the case; the Director of Housing is a public official, and the Office of Housing (a unit of the Department of Human Services) is an entity established by a statutory provision that has functions of a public nature

The finding that the Director and the Office are public authorities is, of course, correct. 

Alas, Nihill held that, even if this argument was correct, she couldn’t do anything about it!:

After careful reflection, I do not consider that I have the jurisdiction to go behind the application made by the landlord, and review whether or not the landlord acted in a Charter compatible way in reaching the decision to make the application. In relation to this proceeding, in this jurisdiction, I can only make decisions about the provisions of the Residential Tenancies Act 1997 and the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act 1998. The Residential Tenancies Act 1997 is very detailed. It provides jurisdiction for a wide range of decisions about residential tenancies, boarding house residencies, and caravan park residencies. It makes no distinction between private and public tenancies. It does not provide for the review of decisions made under the Housing Act 1983 by the Director of Housing.  Any challenge to the decisions of the Director of Housing made under the Housing Act would need, I think, to be brought in a different jurisdiction. The conduct of government bodies in the exercise of their decision making power is reviewable under the Administrative Law Act 1978.

If this is true, then it’s quite a problem, as it’ll mean that any public housing case will have to proceed in two courts: VCAT and the Supreme Court (and the latter is scarcely geared towards the quick informal hearings that are generally considered necessary to resolve residential tenancies disputes.) Nihill made it clear by a reference to the dreaded Sabet that her finding is a purported application of the dreaded Charter s. 39(1):

39(1) If, otherwise than because of this Charter, a person may seek any relief or remedy in respect of an act or decision of a public authority on the ground that the act or decision was unlawful, that person may seek that relief or remedy on a ground of unlawfulness arising because of this Charter.

So, this appears to be the first time the Charter’s remedies section has been used to deny someone a remedy.  Charter s. 39(1), you might recall, is meant to reduce the amount of litigation under the Charter; it’d be doubtful that this purpose would be achieved by forcing most public housing disputes into the Supreme Court. So, fortunately, it’s probably a doubtful ruling. Continue reading

The end of DNA database expansion

Back in March, I referred to a DNA database case before the European Court of Human Rights as the human rights case of the decade, pitting the clearest principles against the clearest practicalities. The House of Lords had unanimously ruled in favour of the practicalities, with one of the Law Lords, Simon Brown, issuing a concurrence just to say:

My concern is simply to indicate how very clear a case this seems to me to be. Indeed my only real problem now, following full investigation of the case with the assistance not only of the parties but from Liberty too, is in discerning any coherent basis on which the challenge can still be sustained.

Yesterday,  the seventeen judges of the European Court’s Grand Chamber unanimously upheld that very challenge, ruling firmly in favour of principle. It’s a stunning development that will put both DNA databases and human rights law at a crossroads.

The applicants in S & Marper v UK [2008] ECHR 1581 were both residents of Sheffield. In early 2001, at the age of 11, LS was arrested on a charge of armed robbery. Two months later, Michael Marper was arrested on a charge of harassing his partner. On June 14th, both were cleared, S by acquittal, Marper by a notice of discontinuance after he reconciled with his partner. Both then asked for their fingerprints and DNA, taken on arrest, to be destroyed, but the police refused, saying they wanted to retain the information for use in future criminal investigations. The police’s plan was made possible by a 2001 change in UK law, following an unsuccessful attempt by two people linked to crimes after their DNA should have been destroyed to challenge their convictions. The new amendment to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) allowed the permanent retention of fingerprint and DNA samples in most circumstances:

64(1A) Where – (a) fingerprints or samples are taken from a person in connection with the investigation of an offence, and (b) subsection (3) below does not require them to be destroyed, the fingerprints or samples may be retained after they have fulfilled the purposes for which they were taken but shall not be used by any person except for purposes related to the prevention or detection of crime, the investigation of an offence, or the conduct of a prosecution.

Subsection (3) required the destruction of DNA taken from people never suspected of an offence (e.g. bystanders, such as residents of a burgled house who DNA is taken to eliminate irrelevant crime scene samples.) So, PACE s64(1A)  allowed the retention of all suspect samples, even when the suspects were cleared. S & Marper’s challenge to the police’s decision under the Human Rights Act was dismissed, in turn,  by a trial judge, the Court of Appeal (in a 2-1 decision with Lord Sedley dissenting) and the House of Lords, before today’s stunning reversal by the ECtHR.

The European Court’s decision was based on the ECHR’s right to privacy:

8.1 Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

8.2 There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The government argued that the only way that DNA can interfere with privacy is at the time of sampling (it wasn’t disputed that S & Marper were lawfully and, it seems, properly sampled) and at the time of matching to an unsolved crime (when the relevant privacy right is the unfortunate right to get away with such crimes undetected.) But the ECtHR has long held that the mere storage of data can amount to an interference with privacy, depending on its content and context.

So, is the storage of DNA and fingerprints an interference? The ECtHR held that this test was satisfied for biological material (because of the wealth of genetic information it contains), the tiny DNA profiles on databases (because they can still be used to show relatedness and ethnic origin) and (overturning an earlier ruling) fingerprints (because they are stored on a computer allowing precise identification in a variety of circumstances.) It’s a little funny that the ECtHR’s reasoning on the most significant and contentious data, DNA profiles, was tied to some relatively recent side-uses of DNA profiles: familial screening (used to trawl the database for ‘partial’ profile matches, yielding possible relatives of the source of a crime scene sample. This technique was notably used to catch the UK’s ‘shoe rapist’, who was detetected after a partial match to his sister, who was sampled after arrest for drink driving), possibly infringing family life too, and ethnicity tests (most famously used to identify London’s gerontophile rapist as Carribean, mostly likely frm the lower Winward islands.) Would cutting out these techniques save the UK database? Probably not, because the ECtHR’s reasoning on fingerprints (which have no such side-applications was based solidly on its traditional identification use, including the utility for computer assisted identification. DNA profiles, being digital, rather than analogue, are much more suited to comptuer-assisted identification (and, indeed, that is by far their primary database use.) I don’t know why the Court didn’t apply the same reasoning for both profiles and fingerprints. Anyway, the finding that retention of any of these things in an identifable form on a crime detection database breached Article 8.1 was a no-brainer (although, alas, a number of UK Law Lords failed the test.)

The really hard question is Article 8.2, i.e. justification. There’s no doubt that s64(1A) exists ‘for the prevention of disorder or crime’ (although some see the potential other uses as a big point.) But is retention ‘in accordance with the law’ and ‘necessary in a democratic society’? The ECtHR had some concerns about the former, because one of the s64(1A)’s use restrictions – ‘the prevention of.. crime’ – is alarmingly vague (ableit tracking Article 8.2 precisely!) But the Court didn’t decide that point, instead focussing on necessity. The Court, while skeptical of statistics from the UK showing the number of crimes, notably murders and rapes, supposedly solved through database matching to profiles retained from cleared suspects, acknowledged that retention would contribute to crime prevention and detection. However:

The question, however, remains whether such retention is proportionate and strikes a fair balance between the competing public and private interests. In this respect, the Court is struck by the blanket and indiscriminate nature of the power of retention in England and Wales. The material may be retained irrespective of the nature or gravity of the offence with which the individual was originally suspected or of the age of the suspected offender; fingerprints and samples may be taken – and retained – from a person of any age, arrested in connection with a recordable offence, which includes minor or non-imprisonable offences. The retention is not time-limited; the material is retained indefinitely whatever the nature or seriousness of the offence of which the person was suspected. Moreover, there exist only limited possibilities for an acquitted individual to have the data removed from the nationwide database or the materials destroyed…; in particular, there is no provision for independent review of the justification for the retention according to defined criteria, including such factors as the seriousness of the offence, previous arrests, the strength of the suspicion against the person and any other special circumstances.

The Court’s conclusion was that ‘the retention at issue constitutes a disproportionate interference with the applicants’ right to respect for private life and cannot be regarded as necessary in a democratic society.’

So, that’s the judgment. But what’s really interesting are the implications: Continue reading

The hidden dialogue on parole

Last April, SARC, reporting on the Justice Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 (which extended the ESO scheme), wrote to the Corrections Minister asking about the exemption (given the broad rights-limiting powers the Adult Parole Board can exercise) and received these responses a month later:

5. Why is the Adult Parole Board exempted from the obligation to act compatibly with human rights and to consider relevant human rights when making decisions under s16(2)? The Government decided to make the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities (Public Authorities) (Interim) Regulations 2007 to exempt the APB and the Youth Parole Board from the Charter for a period of a year in order to allow the review of the impact of the Charter on these bodies’ work; and to consider the resources that would be required to ensure their compliance with the Charter.

6. Will the exemption in the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities (Public Authorities) (Interim) Regulations 2007 be renewed in 2009? The work referred to above is still underway and a decision will be made before the regulations expire on 31 December 2008.

Not exactly chatty, hey?  I’ve complained previously in this blog (and elsewhere) about the silent ‘human rights dialogue’ – more correctly a ‘no human rights dialogue’ – that led to the exemption of Victoria’s three parole boards from the Charter’s obligations mandate late last year. One of the few negative comments in VEOHRC’s report card on the Charter was to make a similar complaint. The only significant public comment on this exemption is Hulls’s response to a parliamentary committee in June this year, comments that led me to wonder whether the parole boards’ concerns were based on some shonky comparative legal analysis.

I had, though, been hoping that the recently tabled Annual Report of the Adult Parole Board would be illuminating on these matters. Other reports by public authorities typically include some proud detail on how they are working to comply with the Charter. But, now that the report is available online, the only mention of the Charter is in the opening ‘message’ by Chairperson Justice Simon Whelan. (Murray Kellam, it turns out, quit in September 2007, before the exemption was enacted. Kellam was part of the court in the Court of Appeal’s human rights lowpoint to date, its Underbelly judgment. But Whelan, like most of the judges, has also had his chance to give short shrift to the Charter this year. Interestingly, his contribution was to tell off another public authority, the Registrar of Titles, for trying to comply with its obligations mandate in a dispute between two companies.)

Anyway, here’s what Whelan had to say about the Charter and parole:

The Board is currently exempt from compliance with the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. The Board’s view is that this exemption, which presently expires at the end of this calendar year, was a prudent and responsible step taken by the government. There are, in the Board’s view, compelling reasons for the exemption. The Department of Justice is currently reviewing the issue and the Board is working with officers of the Department in that review. The Board is confident that there will be a satisfactory outcome which will ensure that important features of the Board’s practices are preserved.

Oops. He forgot to add ‘and ensure that Parliament’s objective of promoting all human rights, including those of prisoners, parolees, victims and other stake-holders in the parole systemn, are met’ a the end there. But I’m sure that’s implicit. Alas, also left implicit and mysterious are the reasons why the exemption was ‘prudent and responsible’ (responsible?) and what those ‘compelling reasons’ are. Continue reading

SARC on dust, death and dodgy fish

The Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee’s 13th Alert Digest for the year (considering a record number of bills, at least in recent years) highlights three Charter issues:

  • Asbestos Diseases Compensation Bill: SARC queries whether the new procedures designed to take account of the lengthy latency and fatal result of asbestos diseases should be extended to cover non-asbestos diseases with similar charcateristics, pursuant to the Charter right to equal and effective protection against (impairment) discrimination.
  • Coroners BIll: SARC expresses its concern that the Bill will amend the Charter’s definition of ‘court’ to cover the newly created Coroners Court, thus bringing the new body within the Charter’s partial exemption for courts and tribunals from the conduct mandate (despite the new body having no role in either developing the common law or resolving private disputes.) SARC will ask the Attorney-General what the (exempt) non-administrative capacities of the Coroners Court would be and whether there are any ‘exceptional circumstances’ (a la the override provision) that justify a permanent narrowing of the Charter’s protection for human rights.
  • Primary Industries Legislation Amendment BIll: SARC commends an excellent statement of compatibility, but also has (what, for it, are) strong words about one provision, which significantly extends an existing offence of selling or possessing an illegally taken fish to cover selling or possessing a fish that has ever been illegally ‘dealt with’ under any Australian law. ‘Dealt with’ includes just about anything anyone ever does with the fish, including transporting and possessing it.  SARC has two concerns: First, that the existing offence includes a reverse onus on the issue of whether the defendant knew or ought to have known of the illegality. This is especially concerning, because the offence applies to consumers, not just commercial operators, and it carries a potential six month sentence. Second, the headings of both the existing provision and the amendment only refer to sale, not possession, so people who plan to possess a fish will have to read the text of the provision to know that they risk prison unless they can prove that they didn’t know about any illegal dealings. The strong words:

The Committee therefore considers that clause 68 may be incompatible with the Charter.

 SARC referred the issue of compatibility with Charter s. 25(1) to parliament and will write to the Miister about the headings (and the otherwise excellent statement of compatibility.)

The Charter and committals

Tony Mokbel, perhaps alone amongst the alleged gangsters from Victoria’s underbelly, will have at least some of his charges resolved in proceedings governed by the Charter, assuming the judges running his case get the date right in Charter s. 49(2):

[I]n February and March 2006, the plaintiff was tried in the Supreme Court on one count of importation into Australia of a prohibited import, namely cocaine, in November 2000, contrary to s 233B(1)(d) of the Customs Act 1901. After the conclusion of evidence, and during the Crown Prosecutor’s address, the accused absconded while still on bail….

Between 27 February 2007 and 20 June 2007, Victoria Police filed in the Magistrates’ Court a further 15 charges against the plaintiff. Those charges included two charges of murder and five charges of trafficking in a large commercial quantity of a drug of dependence. The plaintiff was arrested in Greece on 5 June 2007.

However, Mokbel’s attempt to head-off his coming criminal trials failed yesterday.  In Mokbel v DPP (Vic) & Ors [2008] VSC 433, Justice Stephen Kaye knocked back an application for a stay based on Mokbel’s extradition occurring while his action before the European Court of Human Rights resisting the extradition was unresolved.  Presumably, Mokbel’s Charter action would have been based on his lawyer Mirko Bagaric’s argument that pre-trial publicity means that he cannot have a fair trial.  The ruling didn’t discuss the Charter, but Kaye’s rulings carry mixed news for any furture reliance on the Charter’s fair hearing right.

Kaye’s main holding was that the remedy of a stay for abuse of process is not available for committals. One of the two lynch-pins of his decision is good news for criminal defendans wishing to raise the Charter:

It is useful to commence with the appropriate characterisation of committal proceedings. In Phelan v Allen, the Full Court held that a stipendiary magistrate, in a committal proceeding, exercises a ministerial, and not judicial function, and accordingly an order by him striking out the information and discharging the defendant might not be the subject of judicial review under s 155(1) of the Justices Act 1958. In Grassby v R, the High Court held that a magistrate does not have power to stay committal proceedings as an abuse of process. In reaching that conclusion, Dawson J (with whom Mason CJ and Brennan, Deane and Toohey JJ agreed) recognised that it had been “consistently held” that committal proceedings do not constitute a judicial inquiry, but “ … are conducted in the exercise of an executive or ministerial function”. As such, the role of a magistrate or justice in holding a committal is essentially inquisitorial and administrative. Finally, in Potter v Tural; Campbell v Bah, two defendants sought judicial review of the decision of the magistrate refusing leave to cross-examine certain witnesses in the course of criminal proceedings against them. On review, the primary judge quashed the decisions of the magistrate. That decision was reversed by the Court of Appeal. Batt JA (with whom Tadgell and Callaway JJA agreed) commenced his reasons by stating: “It is established by a long line of authority in Victoria that a magistrate’s order committing for trial or refusing to commit is ministerial and not judicial and also is not amenable either to certiorari … or to appeal under statutory appeal procedures replacing certiorari.”

So, committals aren’t judicial, but are rather ‘ministerial’. Kaye distinguished UK committals on the ground that they determine whether or not charges will go ahead; Australian committals, by contrast, are neither here nor there: an Australian prosecutor can ignore both a positive ruling at a committal (by entering a nolle prosequi) or a negative one (by commencing anex officio indictment.) The point of Australian committals is a bit of a mystery, and they are mostly justified by the opportunity they give defendants for discovery of the case against them.

This issue is relevant to Charter matters, because of the dreaded Charter s. 4(1)(j) partial exemption for courts and tribunals from the conduct mandate:

4(1) For the purposes of this Charter, a public authority… does not include-… (j) a court or tribunal except when it is acting in an administrative capacity;…

Note Committal proceedings and the issuing of warrants by a court or tribunal are examples of when a court or tribunal is acting in an administrative capacity. A court or tribunal also acts in an administrative capacity when, for example, listing cases or adopting practices and procedures.

Doubtless, the combination of these rulings and the note to Charter s. 4(1)(j) will be taken to have basically settled the matter. And that’s basically a good thing, as the Charter s. 4(1)(j) is stupid anyway. But I think that there is still room for doubt. Continue reading

Tribunals under the Charter

Thanks to Phil Lynch for sending me two old but previously unpublished Charter decisions by the Mental Health Review Board.

One, MHRB [2008] 08-133, is an early instance (from late February) of the unfortunate trend of decision-makers addressing a human rights issue solely in terms of Charter s. 7(2) and, inevitably, finding that the test is satisfied. The MHRB, noting its obligations under Charter s. 32 with regards to interpreting legislation, itself raised the concern that compelling a paranoid schizophrenic to undergo a fortnight injection (from a doctor she regarded, naturally, as persecuting her) was cruel, inhuman, degrading and non-consensual. But it concluded:

The Board’s view is that the severity and longevity of P’s illness (which it has found renders her incapable of giving (or refusing to give) informed consent to her treatment), together with the significant risks to her mental and physical health and significant social relationships, make it reasonable to limit P’s human rights in this instance.

I don’t doubt the MHRB’s sincerity here, but anyone who thinks that this is bland instance of self-assessment is a ‘human rights culture’ is kidding themselves. As I’ve argued repeatedly in this blog, Charter s. 7(2) is a tool for assessing laws, not conduct. The MHRB didn’t consider any of the terms of the Mental Health Act, so it wasn’t assessing laws. Instead, the relevant inquiry should have been whether the treating doctor or the MHRB was bound by the conduct mandate and, if so, whether it had a defence  under Charter s. 38(2).  In short, the relevant question for the MHRB is whether the obvious limitation of P’s rights was the only reasonable option under the governing law.

The other decision, MHRB [2008] 08-106, is dated 7 January 2008 (although the hearing that produced the reasons is dated 9 January 2008. Oops.) Either way, it beats Gray v DPP by a week or so as the first ever Charter judgment in the Charter’s fully active mode. And P, a man with a troubled combination of intellectual disability, mental health issues, substance abuse, anti-social behaviour and sexually transmitted diseases, beats Nick Corcoris as the first person to be denied the benefit of the Charter’s operative provisions. In this case, the Mental Health Legal Centre made a ‘Charter challenge’ against the use of injections on P, who is scared of them, again an obvious breach of his rghts against non-consensual medical treatment. The MHRB held:

[T]he Board has no power under the Charter to determine the compatibility of the Act, or any provisions of the Act, with the Charter, nor to declare particular decisions or actions to be in breach of specific Charter rights. Save for the s32 requirement in respect of the interpretation of laws, the Charter does not change the Board’s substantive decision-making role under the Act.

The Board’s point is basically that the Charter doesn’t contain any direct remedies for rights breaches and certainly doesn’t give the tribunal the power to give such a remedy. Indeed. But the Board’s analysis seems to downplay the differences the Charter can make:

  • Interpretation: The Board acknowledges its new interpretative role, but then claims that it can’t determine the compatibility of the Mental Health Act with the Charter. It’swrong. Whenever the Board applies the MHA, it is obliged to think about its compatibility with the Charter and, if there is a problem, to re-interpret wherever possible. Charter s. 6(2)(b) gives all tribunals functions under Division 2 of Part 3, including interpretation. And Charter s. 3(2) defines functions to include powers and duties. So, Board, do your duty!
  • Obligations of doctors: The Board makes this interesting claim:

[A]s a public authority, the Charter will require individual treating teams in area mental health services to take Charter rights into account when making… treatment decisions.

I don’t know enough about the legal and social basis of mental health services to know whether this claim is correct. Maybe mental health services are statutory bodies? If not, the argument has to be that they perform a public function on behalf of the State of Victoria. Not all doctors fit that description, but clearly some will. Anyway, if true, then doctors are not merely required to take rights ‘into account’ but to act compatibly with them, subject to the defences to Charter s. 38. The Board however says that that isn’t its problem:

Since its early days, the Board has taken the view that the specific type and mode of treatment provided to an involuntary patient is a matter of clinical judgment that should be determined by the treating team, in consultation with the patient, as part of the treatment planning process… In the Board’s view, the Charter has not altered that basic position, and the Board has no power to, nor should it, make treatment decisions in individual cases.

This might be good policy, but the Board hasn’t done the right analysis to conclude whether or not it is good law. If doctors are breaching their conduct mandate, then they are acting unlawfully. The question isn’t whether Boards should interfere with a clinical judgment, but whether they should test to see whether the treatment team is complying with the law. Arguably, legislation that doesn’t allow a tribunal to review whether or not behaviour is unlawful is itself incompatible with the Charter s. 7(2) test governing limitations on rights. So, the question then is whether the terms of the Mental Health Act can be reinterpreted to give the MHRB such a review role. (The MHA’s appeal and review criteria are pretty strict, so maybe not.)

None of this would be a problem if the MHRB were itself subject to the conduct mandate. But the MHRB held that it wasn’t: Continue reading

VCAT vs the conduct mandate

Deputy President McKenzie’s judgment in BAE Systems Australia Ltd [2008] VCAT 1799 is significant as the first judgment on  the definition of a public authority  the Charter s. 38(2) defence to the conduct mandate and the scope of Charter s. 39, all issues dear to my heart.

Interestingly, the issue of the applicability of the conduct mandate seems to have been raised by BAE itself (with VEOHRC, it seems, missing in action on this point.):

BAE also made submissions about whether it might be a ‘public authority’ within the meaning of the Charter. In summary, and with certain exceptions, s38 of the Charter makes it unlawful for a public authority to act in a way incompatible with a human right or, in making a decision, not to give proper consideration to a relevant human right. Assuming (without deciding) that BAE is a public authority, this exemption would apply to BAE’s conduct from the date on which the exemption was published in the Government Gazette until the exemption expires. I have considered whether BAE, when it acts as the exemption permits it to do, would be acting incompatibly with a human right and in breach of s38 of the Charter.

Despite having dubiously held that neither the interpretation nor conduct mandates applied to herself, by virtue of BAE’s Christmas Eve application, McKenzie thought that the possible application of the conduct mandate to BAE might affect whether or not she should grant an exemption:

I do not accept BAE’s submission that I cannot consider whether BAE is a public authority until it acts under the exemption and someone raises that conduct under s39 of the Charter. It is clearly relevant, in considering whether or not to grant this exemption, to consider whether the Charter would apply to the conduct which BAE seeks to be exempt from the EO Act, and whether, if it is a public authority in respect of that conduct and obliged to act compatibly with human rights, it would be inconsistent with that obligation and the Charter to grant the exemption. I do not consider that the Charter affects the determination of this proceeding or the operation of any exemption granted.

At least, I think that’s what she held. Who knows where that last sentence fits in? The more I contemplate it, the less McKenize’s approach to Charter s. 2 makes sense to me. Anyway. BAE’s argument about Charter s. 39 seems to take the approach that that section is the exclusive means by which Charter s. 38 operates. McKenzie’s view appears to be that Charter s. 39 only governs when someone (e.g. a BAE employee with an unlucky nationality) can seek a ‘relief or remedy’ for a Charter s. 38 breach. See my discussion of this tricky and highly ambiguous issue here.

Now, onto the question of whether BAE, a private defence company, is a public authority. Here’s the definition of public authority:

4(1) For the purposes of this Charter a public authority is-

(a) a public official within the meaning of the Public Administration Act 2004; or

(b) an entity established by a statutory provision that has functions of a public nature; or

(c) an entity whose functions are or include functions of a public nature, when it is exercising those functions on behalf of the State or a public authority (whether under contract or otherwise); or…

The rest of the list are named  entities (and not BAE.) Obviously, the only one that BAE could fall within is Charter s. 4(1)(c). Here’s McKenzie’s analysis:

It should not be assumed that I agree with BAE’s submission that it is merely a commercial supplier of goods and services to the Australian Department of Defence and so not a ‘public authority’ within the meaning of s4 of the Charter. In my view, it is arguable that what BAE does in providing services and designing, producing and maintaining land, air, space and sea defence systems for that Department might be a function of a public nature performed on behalf of the Commonwealth. It might be characterised as a function connected to or generally identified with functions of government.

A bold argument, but totally wrong. Continue reading

The right to orgy

I wasn’t really expecting this to become a sex, planning and mental health blog, but what can I do? Today’s long expected decision upholding Max Mosley’s claim for breach of confidence against the venerable News of the World is a key example of a statutory human rights law having a transformative role on ordinary law and, through it, ordinary life. It’s possible that, with this case, the UK tabloids will reel back some of their most intrusive reporting on British celebrities. Mosley v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2008] EWHC 1777 is a perfect example for Bob Carr and James Allan to use to criticise the horror of rights-crazed activist judges. Off you go! [EDIT: And now Allan has. Naturally, his column downplays the judge’s finding that the NotW was wrong about the ‘Nazi’ claim, as such factual issues get in the way of Allan’s agenda of portraying all human rights cases as exclusively about values. .]

Mosley’s celebrity status is (or, more accurately, was) due to his Presidency of the FIA, which runs Formula One racing (including Melbourne’s own Grand Prix? Beats me.) This, it seems, was reason enough (if a reason was needed) for NotW to expose Mosley’s penchant for S&M, complete with pun-laden front-page and inside-the-fold spreads (“THE PITS!”), photos (“TEA-TIME: Mosley after orgy) and, on its website, video footage of a couple of recent get-togethers (albeit with the naughty bits sensitively obscured by chequered flags.) Unsurprisingly, Eady J found that this engaged Mosely’s right to privacy under the ECHR, which is similar to Victoria’s Charter s. 13(a):

13 A person has the right- (a) not to have his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence unlawfully or arbitrarily interfered with…

Eady found that sexual conduct in private is (or, in Mosley’s case, was) pretty damn private and that clandestine recordings are a pretty big interference. He rejected arguments that Mosley’s orgies weren’t so private, due to the involvement of multiple people, video cameras and money. He also noted that a NotW journalist’s subsequent threats to name other paid participants in the orgy unless they gave an interview was also a breach of their human rights (not to mention, most likely, the law on extortion.) The significance of this is that it brought Mosley’s claim within the modern human-rights-crazed British law of confidentiality, which now protects confidentiality even when there’s no pre-existing relationship between the claimant and the defendant. (It should be noted, though, that Eady also found that Mosley’s claim was also within old-style confidentiality law, due to his contract with the rogue hooker – woman E – who spilt the beans to NotW for £25,000.)

That wasn’t the end of the matter, of course, as NotW could rely on a human right of its (or, more precisely, its readers’) own, the ECHR equivalent to Charter s. 15(2):

15(2) Every person has the right to freedom of expression which includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds…

The balancing of privacy and expression came down to whether there was a public interest in Mosley’s private practices. Eady quickly dispatched of NotW’s claims that Mosley’s parties needed to be outed for their criminality, depravity and adultery. (Mosley’s wife was the only one with a particular interest in the latter.) But NotW had another angle, both in its papers and in court: that Mosley’s parties were, NotW alleged, Nazi-themed. This fact gained some significance in Mosley’s case because, according to NotW, his family had Nazi links: indeed his parents were married at Goebbels’s place with Hitler as a guest of honour.

Alas, for NotW, Woman E didn’t testify at the hearing, so the paper had to rely on the video. Eady’s approach was to studiously compare the video (of an alleged concentration camp scenario) to actual life in a concentration camp. The role-playing failed to match-up, what with the ‘judicial scenario’ (Mosley was apparently in a concentration camp for crimes, rather than ethnicity); the English names for various players; and even the horizontally striped uniforms (whereas the real camps used less flattering vertical stripes.) There was, of course, the small matter that various conversations occurred in German (albeit with sexual, rather than genocidal, content) and that one of the women yelled out that she was ‘an Aryan blonde’ (although that followed another woman’s claim that “Brunettes rule!”, which doesn’t entirely capture the full philosophy of Mein Kampf.) But, as Eady sensibly pointed out, if Mosley had wanted a Nazi theme, then there were plenty of places in Britain where he could get actual Nazi costumes (as all royal followers well know.) The result: he got a tidy damages pay-out and NotW were also up for Mosley’s yooge legal fees. (NotW avoided exemplary damages, though, because Eady accepted that they really did think Mosely was a Nazi.)

So, does that mean that Victorian celebrity S&Mers can now orgy with peace of mind? Alas, no, due to the technical human rights issue of ‘horizontal effect’. Continue reading

A judgment at last!

Many thanks to Phil Lynch at HRLRC for forwarding me a judgment of the Mental Health Review Board, brought down on Tuesday. And here’s the excitement: of its 43 pages and 247 paragraphs, about half of them  – particularly 12 pages and 53 paragraphs of actual analysis by the Board – aredevoted to the Charter. That is easily more Charter analysis than has appeared in all the reported Charter judgments in Victoria combined. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it’s more than anything that has appeared in all the ACT judgments on the HRA combined as well. It is, in short, what I’ve long been waiting for: a detailed, step-by-step, analysis of some key operational and rights provisions of the Charter in an actual contested tral, where it’s obvious that both parties have made full arguments on these points and the decision-maker has taken those arguments seriously.

The downsides: It’s not a formal precedent in any way, as the MHRB is not a court. Indeed, the MHRB doesn’t even have to be comprised of lawyers, though any questions of law must be resolved by the Board’s legal member, in this case a Mr John Lesser. On the other hand, lawyers represented each side and the Attorney-General intervened and was made a party. The judgment doesn’t carry an official name and is not available on Austlii (whose database on MHRB judgments seems to have died sometime in 2006.) Nor is it available on the MHRB website. But perhaps it’ll be posted on the HRLRC website or somewhere soon enough. Anyway, I have it, thanks to Phil Lynch. [EDIT: Alas, the judgment isn’t publishable as it needs anonymising. I’ll refer to the man involved as ‘the respondent’, until I can come up with something better. For a detailed description and critique of the judgment, see Lynch’s analysis. FURTHER UPDATE: The anonymised judgment has now been published here.]

Here’s the short summary (and it’s a weird and new experience indeed to have more than two lines to ‘summarise’; it took me over an hour to read the thing once, and I will need to read it several times more!):

Back in 2005, the respondent was placed on a community treatment order (CTO) by his psychiatrist. CTOs are the mildest form of coercive power used against people with mental illnesses and are available when people have been made the subject of an involuntary treatment order (which can authorise someone’s detention for the purpose of being treatment) but a psychiatrist decides that detention isn’t necessary:

14(2) A community treatment order is an order requiring the person to obtain treatment for their mental illness while not detained in an approved mental health service.

(3) A community treatment order- (a) must specify the duration of the order, which must not exceed 12 months; and (b) may specify where the person must live, if this is necessary for the treatment of the person’s mental illness.

Clearly,  ‘Mildest’ doesn’t mean ‘mild’.  The respondent in particular is very unhappy about his and wants out of it, so he can stop taking his medication and move on to milder treatment like valium.

CTOs expire twelve months after they are made but they can be extended. GK’s CTO has been extended three times: in April 2006 (by the MHRB), in February 2007 (by the respondent’s psychiatrist) and January 2008 (again by his psychiatrist.) The problem is at the February extension was never reviewed by the MHRB as required by this provision of the Mental Health Act 1986:

30(4) The Board must conduct a review of the extension of a community treatment order within 8 weeks after the order is extended.

As is often the way, s30(4) doesn’t specify any consequences for breach. The respondent argues that the breach meant that his CTO expired sometime in 2007 and that the purported extension in 2008 and the planned review of it by the MHRB that was about to happen couldn’t happen, with the result that GK is free to stop taking his medication until his psychiatrist restarts the whole process. But the alternative argument is that nothing happened to the CTO and GK remains subject to a CTO. So, the principal (but not sole) question for the MHRB is a question of statutory interpretation: what are the consequences of a breach of s30(4) of the Mental Health Act 1986? This question is a tricky one in statutory interpretation and their are competing High Court cases on the issue. Applying non-Charter law, the MHRB, perhaps unsurprisingly, rejected the respondent’s interpretation. But what difference does the Charter make? Continue reading

The right to Ned

It’s been a big week for Victorian icons and human rights. On Tuesday, an anonymous local reportedly attended a meeting of the Hepburn Shire Council to protest rate rises and the ensuing gentrification of Victoria’s spa country by Melbournians. Carrying a placard to that effect (albeit wordier), he underlined his point by borrowing a friend’s Ned Kelly mask – always handy to have one of those around – to ensure that his point got attention. In a way, his plan worked very well. His protest would doubtless have been ignored, were it not for the decision of the Council to shut down the meeting, citing Ned’s refusal to remove his mask as intimidatory. Indeed, Ned would surely have had the advantage if it came to a firefight.

Both sides to this dispute cited legal precedent. Ned claimed that the Australian Constitution gave priority to locals over newcomers like Hepburn Mayor Heyes. (Must be somewhere in Chapter 3.) The Council claimed that no legislatures in Australia had to put up with masked protesters. But, for once, the law is on Ned’s side. There’s the implied freedom of political communication, of course, but what about the Charter (another young upstart law?) I would have thought that the combination of these three sections means that Hepburn Shire Council’s conduct was on the nose: Continue reading


Justice King suppressed it. Roberta Williams and Judy Moran said she did the right thing The Court of Appeal lifted the suppression, except for Channel Nine, but did its best – successfully – to chill everyone it could from even watching it. And, now, a new censor rises:

Media Release – 29 May 2008 – Statement by the Director of Public Prosecutions Concerning Television Series ‘Underbelly’

A Supreme Court jury today convicted Evangelos Goussis of the murder of Lewis Moran. As a result of the verdict, the orders previously made by Justice Betty King and the Court of Appeal prohibiting the publication of the television series ‘Underbelly’ or any part of it in Victoria cease to have effect.

However, due to there being a number of criminal proceedings pending in Victoria which could be adversely affected if ‘Underbelly’ were to be shown, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr Jeremy Rapke QC, today cautioned members of the public and commercial organisations from deliberately publishing any part of ‘Underbelly’ in Victoria. He said that he would take whatever steps were necessary to ensure that accused persons involved in those cases received a fair trial free of any adverse publicity.

Mr Rapke said – “I will not hesitate to take contempt of court proceedings against any person or organisation that deliberately publishes ‘Underbelly’ or any part of it“.

When will the Commonwealth’s Classification Board – the actual censor – join in? (After all, the very first people to call for Underbelly to be taken off TV was the Australian Family Association, who said it breached the Australian Commercial TV Code of Conduct.)

But one of these people is not like the others. That’s right: Judy Moran and Betty King have more in common than their outrageous glasses. Neither of them is bound by the Charter. Nor is the Court of Appeal or the Commonwealth’s Classification Board of the Australian Family Association. But Jeremy Rapke sure is, three times over:

4(1) For the purposes of this Charter a public authority is-

(a) a public official within the meaning of the Public Administration Act 2004; or

(b) an entity established by a statutory provision that has functions of a public nature; or

(c) an entity whose functions are or include functions of a public nature, when it is exercising those functions on behalf of the State or a public authority…

And that changes the rules. Well, this one, anyway:

38(1) …[I]t is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way that is incompatible with a human right or, in making a decision, to fail to give proper consideration to a relevant human right.

Now we all know which right is being limited. And there are no Charter-based fig leaves for the DPP. The suppression is aimed (as it always was) at everyone, not just a corporation. And Mokbel was charged after 1/1/7, so Charter s. 49(2) doesn’t apply either. He’ll be the first gangster to have all his Charter rights. And this will be the first gangster proceedings where everyone will be free to use the Charter to the max.

So, was Rapke’s threat – no, scratch that, promise! – to prosecute anyone – every person or organisation – who publishes Underbelly – ‘imparts [that] information and [those] ideas’  – in every circumstance whatsoever lawful? This raises the general question that I addressed in an earlier post: when is it ever OK for a public authority to limit anyone’s rights?  As it happens, this example illustrates both possible approaches to this question. Continue reading

The Charter vs landlords

The always excellent bulletin of the Human Rights Law Resources Centre is now out, in its June edition. The Bulletin has many Charter-related pieces, including:

  • an analysis of the Statement of Compatibility of the Public Health and Wellbeing Bill 2008, with a particular focus on the compelled examination and control of people who may have infectious diseases. (I blogged about SARC’s call for submissions in relation to that bill here; unfortunately, the newsletter didn’t mention that…)
  • casenotes on Victoria’s Unberbelly case (blogged about too many times here) and comparative notes on decisions concerning remandees, non-oral hearings, the House of Lords case on inquiries into the Iraq war (blogged about here), evictions, the right to privacy of JK Rowling’s toddler (cool!) and the second ACTHRA case of the year (on adoption.)

But, most interestingly, there was a lengthy discussion of an otherwise unpublicised use of the Charter in a Victorian eviction case. It concerned the following provision:

263(1) A landlord may give a tenant a notice to vacate rented premises without specifying a reason for the giving of the notice.

Acting for a tenant – a pregnant single mother to two young children – who received such a grim notice from a community housing landlord, PILCH made two arguments to the effect that evictions into homelessness are now forbidden in Victoria:

  • applying Charter s32(1) – and, I think, Charter s. 13(a)‘s right not to have your ‘home’ arbitrarily interfered with – they argued that the entire clause should have the following words added: ‘if reasonable to do so in the circumstances and if to do so is compatible with the Charter.’
  • applying Charter s38(1), the argument is that the landlord – a registered rental housing agency under the Housing Act 1983 – is a ‘functional’ public authority (presumably under Charter s4(1)(c)) and, therefore must consider the rights of the tenant and her kids (presumably under Charter ss. 13(a) and 17(2).)

Neither of these arguments is particularly appealing. Continue reading

The Charter vs sleep

The High Court has granted special leave in the sleepy judge case. That was a no-brainer, although not a certainty.

For those who’ve been asleep for the last year, the case involves two accused – and, for now, convicted – drug smugglers who had the bad fortune of being linked to several parcels of ecstasy via a complex web of business records and covert telephone recordings. They also had what is likely to be the very good fortune of drawing District Court Judge Ian Dodd as their trial judge. He had terrible sleep apnea, which meant that he barely got any sleep at all at night. So, it seems, he caught up during the day, especially during the boring moments in the trial whenever everyone listened to tapes of telephone buggings or one of the defendants was cross-examined:

When I was giving my evidence I was facing the bar table and the jury and the judge was behind me. At times during the prosecutor’s cross-examination I heard a deep rumbling noise come from behind me. At first I was not sure what it was and then I realised that it was snoring. It became louder and I realised that some of the other people in the Court and the jury appeared to have noticed and were looking at the judge and not me or the prosecutor. Some of the jury looked surprised and others were smiling. When I first heard the noise it was quite soft and not particularly distracting but as it became louder and other people appeared to notice I found it very disruptive and it made it hard to concentrate on the questions. I did not really know what to do about this and I did my best to just try to concentrate on the questions and my answers. At one point, when the snoring was at its loudest, the prosecutor appeared to stop asking questions and I turned to the associate who shrugged her shoulders. I looked back and then I heard a loud banging noise behind me and I turned to look back and saw the judge looking up startled. The questioning continued and after maybe ten minutes I heard the snoring noise again. This happened a number of times whilst I was giving my evidence.

Or so one of the accused swore to the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal, a story matched by several of their friends and family watching the trial. When this phenomenon was raised with their solicitor, he told them that it wasn’t a one-off problem, but it was best not to annoy – or was that wake? – Judge Dodd. Even the prosecutor conceded there were times when he ‘appeared’ to be asleep.

Wendy Abraham, in-house senior counsel for the Commonwealth DPP was quite the model litigant in her response to these tales: she argued that all of these complaints weren’t ‘fresh evidence’ (meaning the appeal court had to disregard them) and, indeed, that the arguments they raised infringed rules against inquiring into the jury’s deliberations. Moreover, she submitted, one of the defendants had waived his right to complain, because his grovelling pre-sentencing note to the judge began: “I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for what was a very fair trial…” And, finally, she argued that there was nothing wrong with a sleeping judge anyway, so long as he didn’t make any wrong decisions in his sleep. Apparently, she said all of this with a straight face.

And, believe it or not, two judges of the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal went along with most of it. Justice Michael Grove wrote that the defendant’s note (thought to be an admission of his guilt) was ‘not… insignificant’, nor was the fact that three lawyers  ‘remain[ed].. mute’ while the judge allegedly snored. The defendants’ minimal rights to a properly constituted court were satisfied by the judge’s mere physical presence, not his mental presence.  Judges shouldn’t be judged by their conduct, but rather by the effect of their conduct and the defendants couldn’t point to any errors that were actually made (and all that stuff about the jury laughing and pretending to be asleep themselves wasn’t of concern.) Justice Rod Howie roused himself briefly to say that he agreed with Grove J. And that was that. Not exactly a highpoint in the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal’s recent history, which is saying a lot. Judgments of this quality certainly support the crown’s argument that there’s no great harm  to justice when a judge nods off.

Alas for the crown, the third judge on the appellate bench was Justice John Basten, who delivered a lengthy and wide-awake dissent. He argued that a court led by an unconscious judge isn’t a court at all and, moreover, the risk that the jury was distracted or diminished by the judge’s example was a miscarriage of justice, one that no ‘proviso’ could magic away. He also found that the trial failed a boilerplate provision in NSW’s District Court Act:

All civil and criminal proceedings in the Court, and all business arising out of any such proceedings, shall, subject to this Act and the Jury Act 1977 , be heard and disposed of before a Judge, who shall constitute the Court.

Indeed, he all but endorsed the defendants’ ambitious argument that their federal trial was actually unconstitutional thanks to the Constitution’s right to trial  by jury, which arguably requires a jury supervised – in an active way – by a judge.

Victorian criminal defendants these days would have an (even) easier time making such arguments, because of the crystal clear terms of Charter s. 24(1):

24 (1) A person charged with a criminal offence or a party to a civil proceeding has the right to have the charge or proceeding decided by a competent, independent and impartial court or tribunal after a fair and public hearing.

Or would they? Continue reading

The responsibilities of trial judges

Trial judges have a very tough job. That’s especially true with lengthy trial, such as the 2002 of ex-psychiatrist Jean Gassy for the murder of Adelaide doctor Margaret Tobin, where 163 witnesses were called. Justice Ann Vanstone, alas, blew the whole trial, once (arguably) weeks before the jury was sworn in and again (definitely, according to today’s 3-2 High Court decision,  Gassy v R [2008] HCA 18) half an hour before they brought in their guilty verdict. Her errors are closely tied to two rights in Victoria’s Charter:

24(1) A person charged with a criminal offence or a party to a civil proceeding has the right to have the charge or proceeding decided by a competent, independent and impartial court or tribunal after a fair and public hearing.

25(2) A person charged with a criminal offence is entitled without discrimination to the following minimum guarantees- (d) …to defend himself or herself personally or through legal assistance chosen by him or her….

There are three awesome things about Gassy’s case.

First, it’s a fascinating example of a circumstantial case. Gassy had a motive to kill Dr Tobin – she was instrumental in his deregistration as a psychiatrist and, indeed, her name was on a list of those involved found at Gassy’s house – the means – pistols of the sort used to shoot her – and the opportunity – he lived in Sydney but rented a car that weekend that was returned with 3110km on its speedo. But he said that the pistols and car use were just training for his planned new career as a PI. There were no witneses to the shooting itself; even Dr Tobin – who knew Gassy – didn’t identify him in her dying words. Rather, the prosecution relied on a web of more distant evidence – a trail of hotel registrations and gun purchases with licence plates and phone numbers similar to Gassy’s, and people who picked him out of photo books – linking Gassy to both the Adelaide trip and an earlier trip to Brisbane that coincided with a conference attended by Dr Tobin and a man acting suspiciously ‘furtive’.

Second, Gassy represented himself, not only at his bail hearing and the entire trial, but also in his application for leave to appeal to the SA Court of Criminal Appeal, the appeal itself, his special leave application before the High Court and the High Court appeal itself. He wasn’t poor, but simply had his own reasons to want to represent himself. (He declined pro bono legal assistance at the High Court appeal.) I can’t help but think that his weird willingness to do this didn’t really help him on the factual question of whether he was the kind of guy who would kill someone. Moreover, as Kirby J pointed out to him in the High Court, his defence may actually be used in his re-prosecution!:

KIRBY J: Now, we have reached now a point where I think it is fair to say to you that one of the disadvantages you have in not having a lawyer speaking for you is that you are there, and if you were to succeed and a retrial was ordered, anything that you say now before us might be used in that retrial. Do you understand that?

MR GASSY: Yes, your Honour. Thank you.

KIRBY J: So you have just to be a little careful in your own interest in the way in which you advance these matters now before us. It is one of the reasons why courts like to have lawyers present. As I understand it, you would have been given the opportunity to have a lawyer represent you here and you have elected to speak for yourself, as is your right, but it does carry certain risks for you and you must be aware of those.

I’d like to think that a court would act to bar a prosecutor from using a defendant’s exercise of his right to defend himself against himself, but I have to admit that the argument – the fairness discretion perhaps – is hardly a lock.

Third, Gassy did really well defending himself. Some evidence was thrown out at his initial trial. The Court of Criminal Appeal unanimously agreed that the search warrant the police executed on his Sydney home was invalid on several grounds. One judge in the CCA would have allowed his trial on some grounds. He got leave in the High Court (although the court focussed exclusively on the grounds raised by the judge, whereas Gassy focussed on the search warrant, foolishly assuming that the ‘public policy discretion’ is ever applied to exclude significant evidence in a serious trials. He’s obviously read too many High Court judgments and not enough empirical research.) And, of course, he won today in the High Court in a 3-2 decision. If he succeeds in his second trial in Adelaide, then maybe he should get a job with Legal Aid!

Alas, the case also illuminates how little the Charter will affect Victorian trials, due to a major gap in the Charter: Continue reading

Frankly not bright enough

The other half of Sunday’s Age article on the Charter concerned the prospect of legal confusion caused by the Charter. I think this issue merits much more attention than the usual debates about judicial activisim and dialogues and whatnot.

That being said, I’m sad to see it being raised in this way:

Prosecutors are reluctant to air publicly their concerns about the charter, but one senior prosecutor, who declined to be named, told The Sunday Age the courts would be flooded with litigation that would provide many defence lawyers with “a lifelong right to an income that they probably don’t deserve”. The charter was “an absolute disaster” for the court system and would clog it up for no good reason, the prosecutor said. The traditional system of common law had adequately protected Victorians’ human rights for decades, and the charter’s authors were “frankly not bright enough” to make it watertight.

Hey there ‘senior prosecutor’! Why exactly aren’t you willing to go on the record with these comments? If your excuse is to do with the integrity of the Office of Public Prosecution, then why are you willing to lend your title to them, especially the personal insults?

Here’s the way the same point could have been put: Continue reading

The right to relationship ceremonies

The Federal Governement’s threat to veto the ACT’s bill for civil partnerships focussed on its provision for an official ceremony. The first ACT Civil Union Act (until it was vetoed by Ruddock) contained the following provision:

11 How civil union is entered into

(1) Two people who have given notice to an authorised celebrant in accordance with section 9 of their intention to enter into a civil union with each other may enter into the civil union by making a declaration before the authorised celebrant and at least 1 other witness.

(3) The declaration must be made by each person to the other and must contain a clear statement that— (a) names both parties; and (b) acknowledges that they are freely entering into a civil union with each other.

Robert McClelland’s view is that such a ceremony ‘mimics’ marriage. Instead, the ACT will have to follow Victoria’s lead. Victoria’s new Relationships Act 2008 provides as follows:

6 Application to register a registrable relationship

Persons who are in a registrable relationship may apply to the Registrar, in a form approved by the Registrar, for registration of that relationship…

7 Requirements of application for registration

An application under section 6 must include or be accompanied by–

(a) a statutory declaration from each of the applicants verifying that the applicant– (i) consents to the registration; and (ii) is not married or in a registered relationship; and (iii) is not in another relationship that could be registered under this Part…

10 Registration

(1) If an application to register a registrable relationship has not been withdrawn under section 9, the Registrar may register the relationship in accordance with this section.

So, registering a relationship just involves doing a stat dec and then queuing up at a counter and watching some bored public servant type on a computer. No marriage-mimicking here!

But the ACT government also made a further announcement:

[T]oday I have directed my Department to make arrangements for administrative ceremonies to be conducted by the Registrar General or her delegates once the bill is enacted,” Mr Corbell said. “These ceremonies will have no legal status but will provide couples with the opportunity to publically reaffirm their written declaration of commitment.

I’ll leave it to others (hello Robert McClelland!) to ponder the mysterious difference between this approach and the ACT’s preferred approach. But one interesting question this raises is whether a similar approach will be taken in Victoria. And, indeed, whether the Victorian government has any choice in the matter, given the Charter. Continue reading