Wrapping up 2008

To date, I’ve covered 47 cases that mentioned the Charter in 2008. There’s another two that I’ve written a post on but VCAT won’t let me tell you about those. And there’s another four [EDIT: five, as it turns out; [RE-EDIT: no seven!]] left. But the clock is ticking and I won’t have time to do a post on each of them. So, instead, here’s a set of short-takes:

Morgan v Department of Human Services (General) [2008] VCAT 2420: This is an FOI case from VCAT, but not the major case foreshadowed in the VGSO seminar, which I think was the subject of hearings last week. Instead, Ms Morgan is a litigant-in-person who alleges that various agencies of DHS committed manner of wrongs against her and her son in relation to eviction from and provision of crisis accommodation. Her initial step was to launch a private prosecution, but the DPP took it over and then dropped it. She then made an FOI request to DHS, who refused to release 128 documents, claiming a variety of FOI exemptions. She disputes the exemptions, hence the VCAT hearing. The Charter appears to arise in two ways: (1) Morgan alleges that the initial wrongs by the DHS agencies included breaches of various Charter rights: equality, privacy, families/children, liberty. Senior Member Robert Davis held this Charter angle made no difference, given that Morgan was already alleging all manner of illegality. Fair enough, though the position might be different for some other rights, like the right to life, that incorporate a right to a state investigation – arguably, FOI is needed to make sure the state doesn’t duck that job. (2) Davis noted that, in interpreted the FOI Act’s exemptions, he had to ‘give regard to [Charter] s32 in particular and the Charter in general.’ But nothing came of this. No sign of any analysis of what rights the exemptions may be incompatible with. I guess that’ll be up to Bell when he delivers judgment in XYZ v Victoria Police.

Kilkenny v Frankston CC [2008] VCAT 256: This is a plain old residential planning dispute from the Melbourne suburb of Seaford. So, what’s the Charter angle?:

Ms Kilkenny and Mr Colgan expressed concern about the potential for overlooking onto their property from a south facing window to the stairwell. Their grounds assert that the window would cause overlooking causing unreasonable loss of privacy. They also asserted that the charter of human rights had been breached as the council had not given adequate regard to their privacy. However, these concerns were allayed when Mr Kirk agreed to the inclusion of a condition on the permit requiring the deletion of the window in question and for it to be replaced with a skylight. Ms Kilkenny and Mr Colgan agreed that with this change, they were no longer concerned about overlooking or that their rights under the charter were breached.

Well, that’s a relief. I bet Phil Lynch will add this one to his list of feelgood stories about how the Charter is making a real difference! I’m sad, of course, because I would have loved for this one to go to the High Court so they could solve the many fascinating issues Ms Kilkenny’s and Mr Colgan’s assertion raises about the potential ‘horizontal effect’ of the Charter!

A R M v Secretary to the Department of Justice [2008] VSCA 266: This is the companion case to the fizzer, RJE. Unlike RJE, ARM didn’t escape his ESO. That’s unsurprising, because he had quite the history of offending (though, weirdly, he only got a short sentence for his most recent offence, which was against a 19 year-old) and, indeed, he conceded that he was likely to re-offend without supervision. His complaint was that an eight-year order was excessive, because of expert evidence that he’d be fine after a three-year course of treatment. The Court of Appeal held, convincingly, that the trial judge’s order of a three-year review (and two-year reviews thereafter) would do. That’s fair enough. Indeed, there seems to be no difference in substance, so why was ARM even in the court of appeal? Anyway, he did have two smaller victories: (1) He managed to head off an astonishing argument by the government that the SSOMA only allowed appeals against orders, not the duration of them. What was that about ‘model litigants’ not relying on ‘technical defences’? (2) He also won a non-pyrrhic victory, by getting the Court of Appeal to suppress his identity. This involved overcoming another nasty technical defence, but was otherwise easy, as the Court of Appeal felt that non-suppression would be a punishment and that there was no public interest in knowing who ARM was anyway. And that’s where the Charter got a passing mention:

In other cases it may be necessary to consider the right to privacy and reputation conferred by s 13 of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities and, along with it, the effect of s 32 of the Charter on the interpretation of s 42 of the Act.

Yeah, well, in other cases – and in this case, for that matter – it might have been appropriate to consider Charter s 15 too, don’t you reckon? Derryn Hinch would undoubtedly say that Charter s 17 is worth a look too. But, boy, it’s not looking good for his challenge, is it?

Tilley v The Queen [2008] HCA 58: And, in what appears to be the [EDIT: second- [RE-EDIT: fourth!]] last Charter case of the year, it’s the first one that isn’t in a Victorian court or tribunal, though I guess Kenneth Hayne is still a Victorian of sorts. Not that he went easy on his former court. He was livid that convicted heroin trafficker, Peter Tilley, had to wait almost two years before he got an appeal hearing in the Court of Appeal, and then an astonishing further year before the Court delivered a judgment. (One of Tilley’s co-conspirators (ahem) completed his life sentence during that interlude!) Tilley was now seeking special leave in the High Court because the Court of Appeal, despite spending so long in contemplation, apparently forgot to consider some of his appeal grounds. Before Hayne, he argued that he had only one year left of his five-year non-parole period and an appellate success after that would be pointless unless he got bail. That triggered one half of a High Court precedent on bail pending special leave, but alas Hayne held that Tilley failed the other half, which required that the special leave application had a good chance of succeeding. Anyway, in the midst of Hayne’s raking the Court of Appeal over the coals, he said this:

It is neither necessary nor appropriate to examine here what, if any, consequences now follow in Victoria in this respect from s 25 of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic) and its provision that: “(2) A person charged with a criminal offence is entitled without discrimination to the following minimum guarantees – … (c) to be tried without unreasonable delay”.

Nice to know he’s heard of the Charter. But why wasn’t it necessary or appropriate to actually apply the thing? Two explanations: (1) Charter s. 49(2), the bane of all ‘unreasonable delay’ cases for now. Tilley, of course, was charged yonks ago, but there would seem to be an argument that his proceedings before Hayne were separate from his criminal proceedings. (This makes a mockery of Charter s. 49(2), of course, but it deserves that.) (2) The High Court wasn’t exercising appellate jurisdiction (which might involve reviewing whether or not the Court of Appeal should have applied the Charter during the appeal) but original jurisdiction (and, in particular, s73 of the Constitution, which is the source of the High Court’s bail power.) So, no Charter s. 32 (the constitution isn’t a Victorian statutory provision), no Charter s. 38 (the High Court isn’t a public authority) and no Charter s. 6(2)(b) (the High Court isn’t a Victorian court or tribunal), right? Well, maybe. But what about the Judiciary Act and, in particular, this provision?:

79(1) The laws of each State or Territory, including the laws relating to procedure, evidence, and the competency of witnesses, shall, except as otherwise provided by the Constitution or the laws of the Commonwealth, be binding on all Courts exercising federal jurisdiction in that State or Territory in all cases to which they are applicable.

Now, I certainly know very little about federal jurisdiction – Gummow: ‘I just felt a disturbance in the force!’ – and it may well be that this provision doesn’t bind the High Court exercising original jurisdiction. But, on the off-chance that it does, then wouldn’t it be arguable that Charter s. 25(2)(c) is a law ‘relating to procedure’ and that one or other of the operative provisions – Charter s. 6(2)(b) perhaps – is picked up by s79 in applications like Tilley’s? (As I understand things, this pick-up can even apply to state laws expressed to apply only to Victorian courts.)  And might that mean that Hayne has to rethink that rather restrictive High Court precedent on bail, to the extent that it limits Tilley’s rights under Charter s. 25(2)(c)? Just some crazy speculation, but maybe someone else is smoking what I’m smoking. [EDIT: Hey, someone was, but the Federal Court and the High Court didn’t inhale; interpretation is probably the least likely operative provision to be picked up, I imagine.] Not Hayne though, but he did give Tilley a little help, expediting his (doomed) special leave application.

And that’s it for my short takes. Not that short really. Despite my next post, I might just add some additional short takes on the off-chance that more 2008 judgments emerge on Austlii, even next year. But, as for 2009 judgments, you’re on your own.

[EDIT: As promised, here’s a short take on a new 2008 case that has appeared on Austlii: [RE-EDIT: Actually, there are three newcomers now.]]

Drummond v Telstra Corporation Limited [2008] VCAT 2630 is an unfair dismissal case trying to qualify as an anti-discrimination case. Continue reading

Nettle’s Charter dodge

When I went and watched part of the hearing that led to R J E v Secretary to the Department of Justice [2008] VSCA 265, Maxwell and Weinberg seemed set to throw the Charter at the government, while Justice Geoffrey Nettle seemed to be sitting on the sidelines and even throwing the government a bone or two. That just goes to show that my lousy predicting ability is quite robust. As previously posted, the chatty duo bizarrely didn’t apply the Charter, while Nettle, seeing more value in comity, felt that only the Charter could justify ditching Callaway’s interpretation of s11 of the SSOMA from just two years ago.

And Nettle promptly applied the Charter to do just that. This is, of course, quite exciting: perhaps only the second time the Charter has actually made a difference to the outcome of a case (albeit, on this occasion, only the difference between a majority and a unanimous new interpretation.) Some will see more excitement in Nettle’s discussion of the interpretation mandate:

I acknowledge that, if TSL, Tillman and Cornwall are regarded as having been correctly decided according to ordinary conceptions of statutory construction, it must also be accepted that Parliament’s intention at the time of enacting s 11 of the Act was that ‘likely’ need not mean more likely than not. To adopt now the construction which I prefer is to accept that the intention has changed. But that appears to be the way in which the Charter was intended to operate.

It’s great to see that he’s clearly read Charter s. 32, even giving a bit of lip service to the purposive limitation. And he’s even read some overseas cases on rights compatible interpretation. Glory be. In particular, he adopted the discussion of the UKHRA interpretation mandate by Lord Woolf in Poplar Housing:

(a) Unless the legislation would otherwise be in breach of the Convention section 3 can be ignored (so courts should always first ascertain whether, absent section 3, there would be any breach of the Convention).

(b) If the court has to rely on section 3 it should limit the extent of the modified meaning to that which is necessary to achieve compatibility.

(c) Section 3 does not entitle the court to legislate (its task is still one of interpretation, but interpretation in accordance with the direction contained in section 3).

(d) The views of the parties and of the Crown as to whether a ‘constructive’ interpretation should be adopted cannot modify the task of the court (if section 3 applies the court is required to adopt the section 3 approach to interpretation)

The last of these principles is the most exciting, giving some hope that the Victorian judiciary will break free of slavishly parroting of the most intelligible of the lawyers before it. The second-last, while question-begging, is a reasonable point (and Nettle later tantalises us with an almost-endorsement of Ghaidan, not that UK-style interpretative high-jinx are needed to read ‘likely’ as ‘probable.’)

The first two points, alas, are the Charter-marginalising ‘ordinary interpretation first, Charter interpretation last’ method. Nettle says that he prefers this to Elias CJ’s dissent in Hansen due to its ‘clarity and simplicity’, not to mention its endorsement by Anthony Mason in his post-constitutional-senility life in Honkers. But: (1) The dispute in Hansen was about the interaction between the interpretation mandate and the reasonable limits provision, which is a combination peculiar to Victoria, the ACT and NZ, and doesn’t arise in the UK or HK. (2) Any chance, Nettle, of doing some freaking interpretation of the Charter, i.e. reading its words and structure, looking into its history, etc? Since when have ‘simplicity’ and ‘clarity’ been the sole test of a major structural question in a statute? Believe it or not, fundamental rights laws tend to raise some other issues too!

Still, all up, this is a rare instance this year of someone treating the Charter as something other than a bunch of soft suggestions. As Nettle says:

I consider that the interpretation of s 11 of the Act which was adopted in TSL is now inconsistent with an offender’s right to move freely within and without Victoria and the offender’s right to privacy, if not his or her right to liberty. It follows from Lord Woolf’s second direction in Poplar that the Charter cannot be ignored. Consistently with his Lordship’s third direction, however, I consider that to construe ‘likely’ in s 11 as meaning ‘at least more likely than not’ is within the permissible ambit of interpretation, well short of the forbidden territory of legislation.

Are you listening, the rest of the Victorian judiciary? Stop ignoring it.

Alas, Nettle’s relatively solid command of the operative provisions was not matched by his analysis of the rights provisions and the central notion of compatibility. His central reasoning appears in this dross:

Evidently, the purpose of s 11 of the Act is to guard against the dire consequences of the commission of a relevant offence. In some circumstances, that might justify significant encroachments on an individuals rights of freedom of movement and privacy and even liberty. But if ‘likely’ in s 11 of the Act is construed as including a less than even chance, it is capable of rendering the requirement for satisfaction to a high degree of probability illusory. For example, one might, well be satisfied to a high degree of probability (say, 80 per cent) that there is a 45 per cent chance of the commission of a relevant offence, and yet, according to the laws of probability, the risk of the commission of the offence as so assessed would be only 36 per cent. That would mean that a relatively low risk of re-offending could provide a sufficient basis for making an order. Even giving full weight to the purpose of s 11, I cannot conceive of the potentially far reaching restrictions on rights provided for in the Act as being capable of demonstrable justification in the relevant sense unless the risk of an offender committing a relevant offence is at least more than even.

Frankly, I just cannot believe that this is all he could come up with after three days of hearing.

The weakness of Nettle’s reasoning is evident in the very numbers he comes up with. Continue reading

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

Taxi driver redux

Sophie Delaney and Vivienne Topp write in today’s Sunday Age on XFJ (the first mention of the case that I’m aware of in the broadsheet):

Not only is this a disturbing example of tabloid-driven law-making, and an undermining of the rule of law, it is also potentially discriminatory. People found not guilty due to mental illness offend because of their illness. An indiscriminate exclusion of such people from employment or participation in society is particularly questionable in the year when Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities has become fully operational.

It is starting to look like the Charter will inevitably be drawn into this case, despite its near miss in the VCAT judgment.

There are currently three Charter angles:

First, there’s news of an action to overturn the suppression order on XFJ’s name by VCAT:

Ms Kosky’s comments came as the Herald Sun launched legal action to unmask the man, who stabbed his wife to death in a frenzy and whose identity is suppressed by a tribunal order.

It was pointed out to me that, if the Herald Sun was able to use the Charter to reveal XFJ’s identity, then my feared head-on crash may be more of a love-in. Indeed. But it isn’t an especially likely outcome. As the Herald Sun’s owner happens to be a corporation (Herald and Weekly Times), it has no rights. This seems to be the basis on which Channel Nine’s action to get Underbelly unsuppressed came a cropper. It shouldn’t have, of course, as the VCAT suppression order (like King J’s) affects the rights of Melbournians to ‘receive information’, part of their Charter freedom of expression. As well, at a stretch, the Hun can argue that those Melbournians’ right to movement might be harmed by not knowing XFJ’s identity (as some may be deterred from taking taxis.) Even more extreme, they could claim that their rights to security or life are at stake. But that’s a two-edged sword: XFJ’s rights against discrimination, privacy, security and (at a stretch) life (and maybe his family life) are protected by the order. 

Second, there’s Kosky’s promise to appeal against the VCAT judgment:

We will look at every avenue for appeal so I can actually fix that difficulty, so everyone can feel safe when they hop in a cab. That’s what I want to be able to guarantee,” she said.

Presumably, the government will argue that Macnamara misinterpreted the word ‘comfort’ in the Transport Act’s ‘public care objective’ as about upholstery rather than the personal foibles of Melbournian taxi drivers. It’s inevitable that XFJ will resist this argument using the Charter. Macnamara didn’t have to resolve that issue, but the Supreme Court will have to. Perhaps the government will respond with Charter arguments about Melbournians’ rights. But, more likely, the government will just fight XFJ’s Charter claims tooth-and-nail. Charter s. 35 notices will have to be issued, meaning that the Attorney-General and VEOHRC will be invited to the party. Both of course will be there to provide neutral assistance, so maybe the Attorney-General will back XFJ? Anyone want to bet on that one?

Third, there’s the coming legislation. Continue reading

The Supreme Court vs the Charter

Ever since Bongiorno J brought down his decision in Gray v DPP [2008] VSC 4, applying the Charter for the first time, I’ve been hanging out for the Supreme Court to consider the question again. Back then, I was deeply unimpressed with Bongiorno’s analysis. It appeared to ignore significant elements of the operative provisions of the Charter. In that respect, it was a sign of things to come. Not reading the Charter has been the hallmark of Charter cases this year.  To my surprise, the issue of bail did not speedily return to the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal. Newspaper reports revealed that Gray was applied in two later cases in the magistrates court. And then, nothing (published.) More recently, the VGSO seminar and an annual report revealed, with no apparent embarassment, that the magistrates courts simply stopped applying Gray. If true, that’s a surprising approach to precedent and sends a dire message about the significance of Charter precedents, even flawed ones.

Today, over ten months after Gray, the case has, at last, returned to the Supreme Court. In one respect, that’s an exciting development: the first time that the Supreme Court has been asked to apply an earlier Charter judgment setting out rights and an operative response. (The only other Charter judgment that’s been cited in the Supreme Court is R v Williams [2007] VSC 2, but that’s just an authority for not applying the Charter.) Alas, in other respects, Re Dickson [2008] VSC 516, is an appalling development, responding to Bongirono’s non-analysis of the Charter with some opposing non-analysis. The Victorian judiciary’s complete inability to do the slightest justice to a short, important statute is stunning, depressing and the entrenched norm.

George Dickson is, it seems, an even less appealing Charter rights claimant than the Charter’s first ever beneficiary, Kelly Gray:

Mr Dickson is charged with 25 counts of armed robbery and 4 counts of attempted armed robbery alleged to have been committed between August and November 2006. The offences apparently all involve armed robberies or attempted armed robberies on 24 hour convenience stores. These are serious offences involving a disguised offender using a knife. The offences involved the removal of, in some cases, tens of dollars and in other cases several hundreds of dollars. Mr Dickson has prior convictions for armed robbery in Victoria and Queensland….

On 3 April 2008 the applicant was sentenced in the County Court of Victoria for obtaining property by deception to 180 days’ imprisonment. On 23 April 2008, the parole on which he had been released in relation to earlier offences was cancelled. He has remained in custody and, as I understand it, has been serving pre-existing sentences and breached parole for a significant portion of the time since then. I am told that even if he were granted bail in this Court, he would not necessarily be released unless he was granted parole. It is by no means clear that would occur either.

But he has a number of things in his favour. First, he was charged on 20th March 2007, bringing him within the Charter’s stupid transitional provision. Second, the relevant bail provision at issue is the same one as was at issue in Gray (another alleged armed robber):

4(4) Where the accused person is charged-… (c) with an… offence in the course of committing which the accused person… is alleged to have used or threatened to use a firearm, offensive weapon, or explosive… the court shall refuse bail unless the accused person shows cause why his detention in custody is not justified

Third, thanks to the Crown’s decision to lead extensive similar fact evidence at his trial (thus blowing out the expected length of the hearing to three months and requiring a rescheduling), he will spend a minimum of two years and three months in prison awaiting his trial. Indeed, he has already spent a year-and-a-half, engaging the second and third limbs of this interesting right:

21(5) A person who is arrested or detained on a criminal charge- (a) must be promptly brought before a court; and (b) has the right to be brought to trial without unreasonable delay; and (c) must be released if paragraph (a) or (b) is not complied with.

Justice Lex Lasry had this to say about the question of whether or not the ‘delay’ was ‘unreasonable’:

The phrase “unreasonable delay” is not otherwise defined and nor would one expect to be. It must be regarded as descriptive given the particular circumstances. The section also appears to imply that for a delay to be “unreasonable” it would have occurred for reasons not attributable to the fault of the applicant. It was submitted on behalf of the applicant in this case that a total delay of two years and three months is unreasonable. That would be a difficult proposition to reject.

Who knows why the section ‘appears to imply’ that the delay musn’t be attributable to the applicant? Does it say that somewhere? But, anyway, it’s accepted that, in this case, the delay is attributable to the Crown (in belatedly seeking to adduce reams of similar fact evidence) and, perhaps, the County Court, which is notoriously suffering considerable delays. Anyway, Lasry’s finding that 21(5)(b) is satisfied is unequivocal. So, that means that Dickson has the right ‘to be released’. Right?

But, suddenly, Lasry decides to stop reading the Charter and instead goes about the task of distinguish Gray. Not, mind you, on the basis that Gray ignores the Charter’s operative provisions, but rather becuse the facts are different:

It is not submitted on behalf of the applicant before me that he will spend more time in custody than he is likely to serve upon a sentence particularly bearing in mind that his present custody involves revoked parole and is not simply pre-sentence detention. In Gray his Honour further concluded that the applicant was not a flight risk and there was little tangible evidence to suggest that the applicant would interfere with witnesses. Ultimately, his Honour concluded that the applicant had established that his continued incarceration was not justified and he was released on bail. What his Honour’s ruling demonstrates is that the Charter has a significant role to play in emphasising the importance of particular rights, but when it comes to the right to be brought to trial without unreasonable delay, that right remains to be considered within the appropriate or relevant provisions of the Bail Act.  I note at this point that in my opinion the circumstances confronting his Honour in Gray are quite different from those before me. First, in this case given the particular circumstances a significant amount of the applicant’s time in custody might not be reckoned as pre-sentence detention. Second, given Mr Dickson’s mental condition and its apparent connection with his offending, there is a risk that he might commit further offences if he were released. It is put by Mr Atkinson that there is also a risk of interference with witnesses although Mr Atkinson accepts that such a risk is more circumstantial than actual.

These are, indeed, all important differences. But they don’t change the fact that the terms of Charter s. 21(5) are engaged, including Charter s. 21(5)(c), one of the few uneqivocal rights to a remedy that appear in the Charter. Gray, by contrast, didn’t engage Charter s. 21(5)(c), as he had not, at the point of his Supreme Court application, been delayed too long. Instead, the only right he had engaged at that point was Charter s. 25(2)(c), which contains no remedy provision.

So, instead, the question is one of operative provisions. Here’s the argument made by Dickson’s counsel;

Mr Traczyk submitted on behalf of the applicant that the enactment of the Charter has brought about a significant change in the law in Victoria. Prior to the enactment of the Charter, it was submitted, there was no legal right to a speedy trial in Victoria. Mr Traczyk however submitted that s 21(5) of the Charter has clearly created a legal right to be brought to trial without unreasonable delay. It was further submitted that the Charter requires that the provisions of the Bail Act must be interpreted in such a way as to give full effect to this right. Indeed it was initially submitted, on behalf of the applicant, that where a person has been held in custody for a period of time which a court determines is unreasonable, that person should be released on bail, regardless of any other circumstances.

Now, that’s a far from perfect argument, as it appears to treat Charter rights as operative on their own and fails to note the caveats to the interpretation mandate. But, on the other hand, it clearly identifies the relevant operational provision being relied upon. Later, Traczyk makes a less extreme submission:

Mr Traczyk further submitted that even where an unacceptable risk has been shown, the overriding question in determining whether an individual should be released on bail in cases where delay is cited as exceptional circumstances or good cause is whether release on bail is required to give full effect to that individual’s right to be brought to trial without unreasonable delay.

That doesn’t seem to bad an argument. Moreover, Traczyk had a plan to manage any risk posed by Dickson:

It was submitted by Mr Traczyk that if I were inclined to release Mr Dickson on bail I could impose a condition in general terms that he not be released unless and until he was granted parole and that if that occurred, that within 48 hours of release, he report to the North Western Mental Hospital and from then on obey the lawful directions given to him at that institution. Mr Traczyk provided to the Court, on the applicant’s behalf, a letter addressed to the solicitors for the applicant and signed by Ms Elizabeth M. Williams, Psychiatric Nurse at North Western Mental Health. The letter, which is dated 21 November 2008, indicates that should Mr Dickson be granted bail, the clinic at Northern Hospital can offer a Case Management Intake Assessment to the applicant on Friday, 28 November 2008.

A potentially neat case-specific solution to s4(2)(d)’s ban on releasing people who pose an ‘unacceptable risk’. Indeed, there also seems to be an equal protection argument based on Dickson’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, which Lasry was concerned wouldn’t be effectively treated in jail. 

So, isn’t it time, at long last, for a Supreme Court judge to give serious consideration to the meaning and effect of Charter s. 32(1) Alas, no:

I cannot conclude that the Charter requires that the Bail Act be interpreted to allow for an accused to be released on bail, regardless of an established unacceptable risk, whether it be a risk of flight, re-offending, interference with witnesses or otherwise. Section 1(2) of the Charter provides, in relevant part: The main purpose of this Charter is to protect and promote human rights by— (a) setting out the human rights that Parliament specifically seeks to protect and promote; and (b) ensuring that all statutory provisions, whenever enacted, are interpreted so far as is possible in a way that is compatible with human rights; …  Section 1(2)(b) of the Charter requires that other statutory provisions be interpreted “so far as is possible” compatibly with human rights. The provisions of the Bail Act contain no reference to delay or to a right to a speedy trial. In this particular case, the Bail Act requires me to refuse bail unless the applicant shows cause why his detention in custody is not justified.

Charter s. 1???? What freaking planet is Lasry from? That’s the Charter’s purpose provision. It doesn’t have any operative effect. Here’s what the relevant operative provision says:

32(1) So far as it is possible to do so consistently with their purpose, all statutory provisions must be interpreted in a way that is compatible with human rights. (2) International law and the judgments of domestic, foreign and international courts and tribunals relevant to a human right may be considered in interpreting a statutory provision.

Now, granted, it so happens that Charter ss. 1(2)(b) and 32(1) are in pretty much the same terms. But whereas the former is an aspiration, the latter is a legal command. There’s a ‘must’. There’s also a clear reference to relevant comparative law. And there’s also a requirement that any interpretation be consistent with a provision’s purpose. Relying on Charter s. 1 is the kind of thing a (poor) undergraduate student (or Mirko Bagaric) would do.

Now, it’s clear that Lasry thought that the suggested interpretation went beyond what was ‘possible’ under the Bail Act, something Bongiorno failed to consider. Good for him.

But: (1) Lasry doesn’t explain why the Bail Act can’t possibly be interpreted in that way. What words stand in the way? And why? Overseas judgments have made it clear that the natural or settled meaning of words is no barrier. Some go so far as saying that the words themselves are no barrier. Lasry seems to see things otherwise. But why? (2) While, I certainly think it’s arguable that s4(2)(d), which bars bail for people who are an ‘unacceptable risk’, is pretty hard to get around, it’s less clear that the wording of s4(4)(c) is similarly unmalleable, so surely Lasry had to consider whether or not those words needed to be re-interpreted to permit release in a case of unreasonable delay? (3) Lasry neglects any consideration of the purpose of the Bail Act too, which might be a more sound reason to reject the argument put by Gray. (4) Also, if Lasry is right that the Bail Act ‘cannot be interpreted consistently with human rights’ then shouldn’t Lasry be mulling over the need for a declaration of inconsistent interpretation, which would of course require both notice and a consideration of Charter s. 7(2)? (5) I know this doesn’t seem to have been argued, but isn’t there also a conduct mandate issue too, in relation to the OPP and, perhaps, the County Court’s registry?This argument would face some hefty Charter s. 38(2) & 39(1) hurdles, of course, but the remedy of habeus corpus could be apt. (The fact that Dickson was confined on other charges would, of course, seem to be a barrier to them.) Alternatively, there’s the remedy of a stay, which seems to be the (controversial) Canadian approach.

[EDIT: And, (6) When I think about it, the specific reason for Dickson’s delayed trial – the Crown’s apparently belated decision to lead lots of similar fact evidence and the County Court’s willingness to adjourn to accomodate that – seems to carry lots of opportunities for a remedy for Dickson, although it may be too late now. Wouldn’t a better response have been to tell the Crown that if it wanted to move the trial date, it’d have to accept the bail of Dickson?]

Eh, why even bother listing all these things? They all assume that judges have even the slighest interest in what the Charter actually says. Continue reading

The right not to be hurt

A tiny Supreme Court judgment from a month back has appeared on Austlii. Daniels v Bayside Health [2008] VSC 472 involves an unrepresented man who is convinced that his son’s health and, possibly, his life is in danger from treatment he is receiving as an involuntary patient under the Mental Health Act 1986 at Thomas Embling Hospital. Bernard Daniels has been told be Dr Yolanda Lucire, a Sydney doctor, that his son Garth has been misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic and instead has had a variety of other conditions for the last ten years. Her opinion is that the treatment Garth is receiving, valium and zuclopenthixol, is likely to cause harm to him, in particular to his muscles. The treating doctors acknowledge that the medicine has its risks, but dispute the doctor’s diagnosis of a complicating condition called neuroleptic malignant syndrome.

Daniels senior lodged a review with the Mental Health Review Board but turned up at the Supreme Court because he wanted the medication stopped prior to that review. The Mental Health Act requires that all patients (and, presumably, as appropriate, their guardians) be told their rights. Recent new regulations specify that involuntary patients be told of their Charter rights in these terms:

The Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 seeks to promote and protect certain human rights. The Charter defines the protected rights and requires public mental health services to act compatibly with these rights. The Charter also specifies when and how rights can be limited by law. For example, under the Mental Health Act 1986 you may be detained in a mental health service if it is necessary to protect your health or safety or the safety of others. However, any restrictions on your liberty and any interference with your rights, privacy, dignity and self-respect must be kept to the minimum necessary in the circumstances. If you have any questions about the Charter or how it might affect your treatment, contact one of the organisations described at the end of this statement.

This does a nice, if inevitably inadequate job, of explaining the nuances of the Charter. It doesn’t, for example, address the complex issue of whether the Charter places some fundamental new limits on treatment, notably when the treatment is a threat to someone’s health, as Lucire alleges in this case. The statement directs patients wanting more information to VEOHRC. It’d be interesting to know what they’d say in this circumstance.

Daniels senior raised the Charter in these terms:

In the course of his argument, Mr Daniels has raised a large number of matters, many of which are not really matters which I need or can determine at this stage. He raised questions of procedural fairness, the entitlement of his son not to suffer torture under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities 2006, the entitlement of his son not to suffer death or to be at risk of death under the Charter.

Not a bad effort. Daniels has obviously read Charter ss. 9 and 10. The difficulty for him, alas, was that, testifying by phone before the Supreme COurt, Lucire didn’t support the claims of threats to Garth’s life or that there was an intermediate risk, e.g. to his heart muscles. 

Daniels’s reference to procedural fairness – it’s not clear what fairness issues were at stake – was presumably to Charter s. 24. At the Protecting Human Rights conference, I observed that the Attorney-General, intervening in a Mental Health Review Board matter, was described in the judgment as submitting that the right to a fair hearing doesn’t apply to mental health matters. However, Joanna Davidson, in the audience, publicly and firmly objected to my ‘mischaracterisation’, insisting that the issue only arose in passing and that she only canvassed the law briefly. Her vehemence carried the clear implication, before an audience with considerable interest in this matter, that the Attorney-General would never take such a miserly stance. That very public exchange would be quite a relief to many stakeholders in mental health, including Daniels. 

Justice David Byrne treated the matter with appropriate flexibility, deeming it to be an application for an interim injunction for a variation to Garth’s treatment order (even though no application was actually filed.) However, the application was dismissed:

In the circumstances and given the limited area of my concern in this type of application, I find myself not satisfied that the current medication is so dangerous as to warrant the intervention of the court, assuming that the court has the power to intervene in such a case. Accordingly, the application for interim injunctive relief must fail.

While Bryne’s stance is understandable, I’m not convinced that the test applied is appropriate in light of the Charter. While it’s clear that findings weren’t open about breaches of Garth’s rights to life and against degrading treatment, I think that things are a little different given a further Charter right: Continue reading

More on the sex offenders’ challenge

I happened to be in the legal precinct today and dropped by to listen in at the sex offenders’ challenge in the Court of Appeal. Pamela Tate was speaking (presumably for the Secretary, rather than with her ‘neutral’ hat on intevening for the Attorney-General. At least, that’s sure how it sounded.) There were nine barristers there (presumably three each for the two fiends – I spotted Kris Walker. Some VEOHRC staff were there, but it didn’t look like the commission was intervening. [EDIT: Nope, they are intervening, and will speak after the S-G. So, maybe I’m wrong and the A-G was intervening too? It’d be handy if they could colour-code those wigs of theirs.] There was no talk of a declaration, so I assume none of the required Charter s. 36(3) notices are out on that one.  

It’s dangerous to try to sense the mood when you only watch part of a case – as the mood can be the opposite when the other side speaks – but the case didn’t seem to be going at all well for Tate, with Maxwell and Weinberg both hammering into her. Nettle was quieter and even helped her out every now and then.

Anyway, some tidbits I picked up:

  • A comity of errors: One issue (possibly the only one) is the interpretation of ‘likely’ in s11 of the SSOMA. It certainly does seem to be in the cards that the CoA will overrule Callaway in TSM (despite only being a three-judge bench.) Indeed, both sides seemed to disagree with Callaway, with Tate describing his judgment as somewhat confused (which it is.) Hilariously, Tate’s argument is that Victoria should follow the present approach of the NSW Court of Appeal. Regular readers will recall that the NSWCA reached that interpretation reluctantly out of comity with Callaway in TSM! To sustain her argument, Tate had to claim that the NSWCA’s actually misinterpreted Callaway and somehow stumbled onto the right answer.  It’s hard to see how this sort of error can be persuasive, especially when the NSWCA clearly said that, but for comity, it wouldn’t have followed TSM at all but rather would have adopted a stricter standard (which, presumably, Tate thinks is the wrong standard.) Tate, trying to get away from Tilman, relied instead on the follow-up case, Cornwall. Readers will recall that Cornwall was the first bloke the NSWCA refused to detain, ruling that there was no ‘high degree of probability that he was likely’ to re-offend and that electronic supervision would do. He had his bracelet off and melted away within 30 minutes. Surprising that the Victorian government thinks that that’s the perfect test. I guess that Tate will argue that, although the NSWCA stated the correct test in Cornwall, they nevertheless misapplied it to the facts. 
  • A non-‘trivial’ bar: Tate’s big pitch was that, whatever the test is, it shouldn’t be quantitative. That’s because she knew that the court would then go for the ‘more likely than not’ standard that the NSWCA would have backed were it not for TSM, which would certainly narrow the SSOMA scheme. Not that she said that; rather, she argued (1) it would go against the legislature’s choice to use the word ‘likely’, which she claimed (to Weinberg’s incredulity) wasn’t quantitative. Maxwell kept point out that all that was clear is that the test isn’t normative (e.g. a Briginshaw-like standard that re-adjusted itself according to what issues were at stake.) Tate very reluctantly agreed with that. 2) It would encourage over-reliance on statistical expert evidence. Weinberg’s response was that the best way to stop statistical evidence is to stop asking for it and listening to it. Maxwell was concerned that trial judges need an intelligible standard. He could hardly keep a straight face when Tate suggested that defining ‘likely’ to mean ‘a sufficiently substantial risk’ would provide the required certainty (and wouldn’t be ‘normative’.)  The judges then mooted the idea that the bar should be high indeed, given how extraordinary ESOs are. Tate firmly stated that the bar should not be ‘trivial’. That’s quite a concession. She then embarked on some stats to show that of the 150 eligible offenders released last year, the Secretary only called for reports on 34 and only sought orders on 10. Of those tenm seven were granted and the other three were… pending. Weinberg asked whether that meant that none had been refused. ‘Um’ retorted the S-G, until Weinberg pointed out the math. Tate countered with more stats, which suggested that of 40 court applications to date, ‘several were withdrawn’, one was reversed on appeal and one was rejected. A high bar indeed. Attrition stats are always tricky in a discretionary system aren’t they?
  • A non-criminal process for locking up criminals: ‘So, you’d better address Charter s 7(2) then’, said Maxwell. Uh, there’s an intervening step, said Tate: have any rights been limited? That is indeed true, but why she wanted to embark down that road is beyond me. But embark she did, passionately arguing that Charter ss. 25(c), 26 and 27 didn’t apply because of Fardon, the High Court’s umpteenth refusal to apply Kable. Maxwell was a bit dubious about the relevance of Chapter 3 to the meaning of ‘punish’, but Tate pressed Gummow’s  ‘normative scheme’ approach. According to Gummow, ESOs are nothing at all like criminal sentencing, because ESOs are simply triggered by guilt but are imposed for other reasons. As opposed to sentencing, which… um…. anyway. Tate also mentioned a UK case that Maxwell snorted was about non-contact orders, not supervision. Somehow, the model litigant didn’t see fit to talk about Belcher, where the NZCA held that almost identical legislation was punishment for the purposes of NZBoRA’s criminal process rights. I guess that’s in the written arguments. But why wouldn’t she be responding to what her opponents said on that? I hope they know about it! Weinberg raised the fact that SSOMA says that proceedings are criminal. Tate said that was not-determinative but just a starting point and was just a mechanism to ensure that the Secretary had the same obligations as a prosecutor. Weinberg was confused: does the Secretary usually have less obligations than a prosecutor? Nettle chimed in with something about having to call adverse witnesses. Maxwell suggested that, if the proceedings are criminal, then maybe contested facts need to be proven beyond reasonable doubt? Tate said she was sur that the test was balance of probabilities. But you’ve gotta wonder if that will be true in 2010 when s141 of the Evidence Act 2008 kicks in.
  • ESOs and helicopter mums: Tate did concede that ESOs limited one right: freedom of movement. (It’s not clear whether or not the fiends raised any others. Self-incrim, alas, didn’t get a look-in.) So, it’s time for 7(2). Tate started by saying that you need to look closely at the nature of the right. Weinberg said: movement’s pretty important isn’t it? It’s essential to liberty. Tate argued that, at international law, ESOs don’t engage the right to liberty at all. Maxwell asked her to say that again so that no-one misunderstands it. Ouch. She valiantly insisted that ESOs could be likened to mum and dad telling the kids to phone then when they get to their destination. Weinberg pointed out that, regardless, movement was high on the scale in 7(2)(a). Tate sounded unhappy about that. I wonder what’s high on her scale? Life, I guess. What I don’t get here is that all the arguments were about the mandatory bits of the ESO scheme. But an ESO also exposes you to the discretion of the Adult Parole Board, which can order stuff like mandatory medical treatment, having to ‘reside’ at Ararat Prison, who you can associate with, whether you can use the net, etc. There are plenty of rights limitations there. The Board, of course, isn’t bound by the Charter. So why don’t ESOs engage all those rights? It’s not clear that that’s what the sex offenders are arguing, though. Strange.

And that was it for the day. They’re at it again tomorrow, but I’ll skip it.

Again, caution is necessary, but Tate seemed to know that she’s going to ‘lose’ at least 2-1, in the sense that the judges are going to toughen up the TSL threshold to ‘more likely than not’, at least and cite the Charter as the reason. I can’t help but think that Tate is just going through the motions now and planning a High Court appeal, where the judges who were in the majority in Fardon will presumably be more sympathetic to her take on things.