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

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 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

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

Bob Carr vs prison health

In a parliament known for its high percentage of lawyers (in contrast to Victoria’s), I forgot that Bob Carr is a rare exception: a journalist. So, I perhaps he can forgiven for not doing the very basic legal research required to test his rights statute anecdotes, which, it seems, he (or his UK mate) probably just gathered by googling. Here are his two UKHRA claims concerning prisoners:

In Scotland, because of a delay in placing toilets in prison cells, the Scottish Law Reporter estimates that prisoners may be entitled to awards totalling pound stg. 76 million ($158.7 million) because their cells violated the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Government had been caught up with another priority, expanding drug rehabilitation programs for inmates. Last year, pound stg. 750,000 was paid to 197 heroin-addicted prisoners who successfully argued that cutting short their treatment while in prison breached their human rights.

Now, he has the law right in both cases but he left out some interesting facts  and made one serious misrepresentation.

One interesting fact is that the ‘Scottish Law Reporter‘ isn’t, despite its name, a professional legal journal but rather a blog (and who would trust what’s written in a blog?) In fact, this blog mostly just sets out others’ comments and the entry apparently relied on by Carr (for the claim about the conflicting government priorities) was actually an Oped written by Lord McCluskey. He happens to be a long-time critic of the HRA (and the Canadian Charter) whose strident criticism of the HRA back in 2000 (including aspersions cast on particular European nations and the claims of ‘convicted prisoners [and] men engaged in homosexual conduct in private’), delivered in a Scottish newspaper right after he rejected an appeal of Dutch nations raising their ECHR rights, saw that decision overturned and him effectively barred from all future HRA cases. No wonder he author of the blog (“Legal Beagle’) described the OpEd as ‘pontification.’ Carr’s journalism skills seem to be a little rusty!

Another curiosity is that, in contrast to his willingness to mention the relevant rights in his BC doctors anecdote, Carr (unlike McCluskey) somehow failed to mention that the main right in issue in both of the cases described by Carr was the right against ‘degrading treatment’, which, in Europe and Australia is protected in the following terms:

10 A person must not be- (a) subjected to torture; or (b) treated or punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way…

Fancy giving the courts a say (when it comes to statutory interpretation and executive discretion) on issues like this? (The toileting case also relied on the right to privacy, but only as an alternative if the degrading treatment argument was incorrect.)

Also, neither of the payouts he mentions was ordered by a court, but was rather the product of a a legal settlement between the various crowns involved and the prisoners, in each case with the crown insisting that it careful chose between meritorious and unmeritorious claims. But there were earlier court decisions in each case. The Scottish case involved a remandee who had suffered from extreme eczema from the age of 2 months who, despite suffering an infected outbreak, was placed in a cell block that used the toileting practice of ‘slopping out’ – basically, you and your cellmate shit in a bucket that you  and other prisoners poured into a communal trough up to four times a day, a practice long abolished elsewhere in the UK and slated for abolition years earlier in Scotland before funding was diverted – and not moved despite having one of the worst outbreaks a prison doctor had ever seen. The heroin case was a ECtHR ruling involving a heroin-addict who died three weeks after being imprisoned, having spent most of the time of vomiting. The ruling was based on poor medical response to her dehydration, but the English authorities were probably a little chilled by the Court’s endorsement of her treatment with heroin withdrawal medication, as they had recently switched to a ‘cold turkey’ approach to heroin addicts. In short, both cases – and the resulting settlements – concerned the duty of the state with respect to prisoners’ health, hardly a matter that is typically regarded as the proper realm of parliamentary politics.

And what of Carr’s delicious claim that the Scottish toileting problem was the result of diversion of funding to drug rehabilitation, which presumably would have been handy to those heroin-addict prisoners (or at least any Scottish ones?) Continue reading