Treasurer to test “politics” defence to defamation

Commonwealth Treasurer Joe Hockey is suing the Fairfax media company for defamation over articles published in its newspapers under the headline, “Treasurer for sale: Joe Hockey offers privileged access”. The articles described expensive fundraising dinners that allowed people to secretly contribute up to $22,000 to the Liberal Party, bypassing donation disclosure laws. Hockey claims the articles suggested he was corrupt, and that he has been “greatly injured, shunned and avoided” as a result. If the matter goes to trial (which is by no means certain), it will require the court to apply the precedent set by Lange v ABC: publication of defamatory matter is protected if it relates to political issues, is reasonable, and is not motivated by malice.

Round 2 of Chaplains case in High Court today

A follow-up to the School Chaplains case will be heard by the High Court today, again challenging expenditure by the Commonwealth government that is not backed by specific legislation. The earlier decision upheld the separation of powers by requiring legislative approval before the executive could spend taxpayers’ money. The Gillard Government responded with legislation that gave a general authorisation without specifying which programs were covered—today’s challenge will decide if that is sufficient. Professor George Williams thinks the Commonwealth will probably lose, and says, “What’s under challenge is the Commonwealth’s ability to give money to whomever it wants, whenever it wants. It’s hard to overplay the significance of this case. This goes to the very structure of how we are governed.”

The Castle is Aus lawyers’ favourite legal film

A survey of Australian lawyers has determined that their favourite legal film of the last 40 years is The Castle. The movie follows the Kerrigan family’s bid to prevent the compulsory acquisition of their home to build a new airport runway. It includes two famous courtroom scenes, the first involving “the vibe” of the Constitution, and the second focussed on s 51(xxxi)’s requirement that Commonwealth acquisitions of property must be “on just terms”. (In reality, neither argument would prevent their eviction—while the “special value” of the land to its owner must be considered, this “cannot be used to compensate an owner for the sentimental value of the land”.) The Castle has previously been identified as the film that “best represents the real Australia”.

High Court to hear offshore detention challenge

The High Court has agreed to hear a challenge to Australia’s transfer of asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. The plaintiff’s submissions raise two arguments. First, they say the offshore processing scheme is unconstitutional because it goes beyond the “naturalization and aliens”, “immigration and emigration”, and “external affairs” powers in section 51. Alternatively, they say that using Manus Island as an offshore detention camp is unlawful because it would not adequately process claims or protect refugees. (This was the basis of the High Court’s 2011 M70 decision to overturn a similar plan to send asylum seekers to Malaysia.) The case will be heard against the background of ongoing investigations into the brutal killing of Reza Barati, and an ongoing tussle over whether PNG judges can order a human rights inquiry into the camp.

Debate over free speech and new Tas abortion protest ban

Constitutional law experts disagree about whether a Tasmanian law would be struck down by the High Court. The Reproductive Health (Access to Abortions) Act 2013 establishes “access zones” prohibiting protests “within a radius of 150 metres from premises at which terminations are provided”. Michael Stokes of the Unitersity of Tasmania says that because the ban on protests is total, “[t]he provision breaches the freedom of political communication and is therefore outside the powers of the parliament”. The University of Melbourne’s Adrienne Stone disagrees, because “the protection is conferred on only political communication relevant to federal politics” and abortion law is a matter for the States. At this stage, the debate is theoretical; no challenge to the law has been announced.

Palmer says Tas Electoral Act unconstitutional

The Palmer United Party has been accused of breaching Tasmanian electoral laws by publishing the names and photos of political opponents without their consent. Clive Palmer said the law “was only directed at people who published, printed or distributed, and of course our party has not printed, published, or distributed anything—it’s all been done by the Hobart Mercury“. Palmer may have a point: while some rules extend to people who “permit or authorise another person to publish” material, section 196 is narrower. However, a letter sent directly to voters by Palmer also apparently breaches the law. He declared: “I intend to write another one tonight you know, because nobody is going to stop me as a Member of the House of Representative having a dialogue with the Australian people.” He suggested the High Court’s decisions on freedom of political communication would protect him: “There’s no legal problem. Any first-year lawyer can tell you that. You’ve only got to read the high court judgments on it and you’ve only got to read the Act.”

Mass murderer can sue for a computer

Mass murderer Julian Knight has been granted leave to challenge a decision to ban him from access to a computer in his prison cell, which he says he needs to prepare for legal proceedings in the Supreme and High Courts. Knight has been declared a vexatious litigant because he frequently launches futile law suits, which means he now needs the Court’s permission to sue. He is expected to challenge the Corrections Amendment (Parole) Bill 2014 if it is passed, because it names him as the only prisoner who must be denied parole unless his death is imminent. The High Court has previously struck down a NSW law that purported to keep a specific prisoner locked up after his release date. However, the Victorian bill differs in that Knight is serving seven consecutive life sentences, and eligibility for parole is a matter for the executive rather than the judiciary.

Judge criticises mandatory sentencing

A County Court judge has criticised the mandatory sentencing that applies to people smuggling offences. The comments came during a plea hearing for a refugee who was found guilty of helping other refugees, including his family, enter Australia. Judge Dean suggested the mandatory penalty would create injustice:  “One can understand why it happened and why a person would want to assist their own family or his wife’s family to travel or leave circumstances of persecution. It’s not lawful but it’s certainly explicable. He goes to prison and they are permanent residents.” The offender must be sentenced to a head sentence of at least five years, and a non-parole period of at least three years. Late last year, the High Court ruled that the sentencing regime was valid.

Plain packaging fight didn’t end in the High Court

In 2012, the High Court ruled that the Gillard Government’s laws mandating plain cigarette packaging were constitutionally valid. However, the tobacco industry has taken the dispute to international arbitration, arguing that restrictions on the sale of cigarettes are in breach of Australia’s free trade agreements. According to Mike Seccombe, these costly dispute-settlement procedures “have become a means by which big corporations, and often the home countries of those big corporations (notably the United States) seek to subvert the national sovereignty of other countries.” He says that as a result, many countries, including Australia, are questioning whether arbitration processes should be included in future trade treaties.