Friday, 2 September 2016

Policeman defamed

Barrister who ran Tyler Cassidy website ordered to pay $150,000

The Supreme Court of Victoria decision Dods v McDonald shows that aggravated damages will be awarded where defamatory implications are grave and maintained without any apology offered.


Tyler Cassidy was 15 years old when he was shot by police in a park in Melbourne.  Colin Dods, the plaintiff, was one of the Victoria Police Members who fired at Tyler.  The plaintiff was exonerated of personal responsibility and was found not to have contributed to Tyler's death in findings which followed a coronial inquiry conducted in 2011.

The defendant, a Queensland based barrister, was aware of the Coroner's Court findings when he published two statements about the plaintiff's involvement in Tyler's death on pages of his website (which was focussed on Tyler's death) in 2012.  The plaintiff alleged that the natural and ordinary meaning of these statements included that: the plaintiff had executed, shot and killed, gunned down, and chose to shoot Tyler; used excessive force out of proportion to the threat posed by Tyler; and committed manslaughter by shooting Tyler.

The defendant denied the plaintiff's repeated requests for an apology although he did modify the relevant pages of his website and ultimately closed the website down.  After amending his defence a number of times prior to trial, the defendant denied that the publications were defamatory, denied that the plaintiff was entitled to aggravated damages and sought to rely on the defence of triviality (ie that it was unlikely in the circumstances that the plaintiff sustained any harm).  The defendant maintained the defence of justification (ie truthfulness) until shortly before the trial.


A jury found that the publications were defamatory and the defence of triviality was not established.

His Honour Justice Bell ordered that the defendant pay the plaintiff $150,000 in damages, including aggravated damages.  His Honour found that certain aspects of the defendant's conduct of his defence had been improper and unjustified and, even though the scope of publication had not been large, the jury had found that the defamatory content had been grave.

Read more about compensation awarded to a woman who was the subject of sexually explicit Facebook posts here or about the tweet that led to former Treasurer Joe Hockey being awarded $200,000 here.

If you would like to know more about the law of defamation please contact:

Max Steed

Anna English and Dianna Gleeson
Managing Principal Solicitors

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Shining a light on innovation…

Everyone is talking about innovation - the Commonwealth Government wants us to be an 'innovation nation' and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs are the rock stars of our era.  Innovation is often associated with technology, investment banking and start ups.  Like all stereotypes, it tells only part of the story.  Some of the most interesting innovation is happening in our backyard - the Victorian public sector.

In addition to encouraging innovation in the private sector, the Victorian Government is encouraging the public sector to consider how we can perform our functions and deliver public services better. What is better depends on what you are trying to achieve - it might mean 'better', in the sense that a citizen gets the public service they need more quickly and easily; it might mean 'better', in the sense of more efficient use of public money; or maybe it means 'better' in the sense of a new function being performed that was previously thought to be impossible or outside of the capacity of the public sector.

The Victorian Government is supporting the public sector to act on their innovative ideas through:

  • The Public Sector Innovation Fund provides funding support for pilot projects that test or prove new knowledge, technologies, processes or practices to deliver public value and that can be scaled or replicated across government.  Grants of $50,000 to $400,000 are available.
  • At the Australian Information Industry Association iAwards, the Premier will award the inaugural iAward for Public Sector Innovation.The winner will be revealed on 1 September 2016.

Examples of projects already funded by the Public Sector Innovation Fund include:

  • Code for Victoria Challenge, in which three teams of Code for Australia Fellows will be placed within government departments for six months . The Fellows will create new tools or streamline processes that will make government information more open and accessible online, and improve the delivery of government services.   The first round of the Code for Victoria Innovation Challenge recipients have just been announced this week
  • The 2016 Budget Hack brought together the public sector, the tech community and industry leaders to find new and better ways to visualise, use and leverage data from the State Budget.  The winning entry, Bling My Suburbs, allows users to search budget information by suburb.  The other entries in the top three included Budget Pie, which allows a user to see how much funding was allocated to the issues affecting them (I.e. How much of the pie do my issues get?!), and Ask Budget, which uses a word cloud to identify how frequently an issue was mentioned and then summarises the mentions.
Many of the innovations are not complicated and nor did they require a Steve Jobs to think of them. Many of the examples of public sector innovation start with an idea or feedback from a citizen.  For example:

  • Service Victoria is creating a 'one stop shop' for citizens looking for government information.  I tried it out on my sister, who is moving house this weekend. Through some simple questions asked of the website over dinner, my sister found the right places to change her driver's licence, find out who her new council and MPs are, when her hard rubbish collection is and how much her rates will be.  Service Victoria received additional funding in the recent State Budget, which will enable them to implement its objective of digitising more government transactions. 
  • EPA AirWatch provides visual information on air quality on an hourly basis.  Using a Google map, the user can see the status of air quality at a monitoring station (Very Good, Good, Poor, etc) and then see a more detailed break down of the readings, including a health category.
  • The online family violence intervention application form [] allows people to apply for intervention orders online, rather than by submitting a paper form.  The online format allows high risk cases to be flagged and brought to the attention of a magistrate earlier.  The form has been piloted at the Neighbourhood Justice Centre and, with a grant from the Public Sector Innovation Fund, will now be rolled out to the Magistrates' Court.
Innovation is also happening in government legal services.

  • Government departments are exploring ways in which government can benefit from 'the new legal paradigm', in which technology and new business models are reducing legal costs and communication styles are changing.  Some departments have started the conversation with panel law firms.
  • VGSO has appointed its first Innovation Counsel who has challenged and evangelised our lawyers to explore with government agencies how legal services can be delivered in ways that better meet the needs of government.

Everyone is talking innovation - and the Victorian public sector is doing innovation.  How is your agency innovating?  What do you think the public sector could do differently or better?  Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

To find out more please contact:

Katie Miller
Innovation Counsel

Andrew Suddick
General Counsel

Joanne Kummrow
Special Counsel

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Shifting expectations - implications for the EPA and government agencies

The Government recently released the Ministerial Advisory Committee's Final Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Environment Protection Authority (EPA).

The inquiry says its 48 recommendations are aimed at making the 'EPA of the future the strong protector of public health and the environment that Victorians expect - and need - it to be.'  The far reaching recommendations would modernise EPA's governing legislation and clarify its objective to protect human health and the environment.  The recommendations seek to clarify the EPA's role and strengthen the EPA's scientific base, functions and tools, as well as its governance structure and funding.

The impact of the report stretches beyond the EPA. The EPA's functions are shared with other agencies within the broader environment protection regime.  The recommendations are aimed at improving coordination mechanisms across this regime, clarifying EPA's role in emergency management, and better managing environmental risks in the land use planning system.

There are issues and themes of relevance for all public authorities contained in the report.  This is particularly so in relation to what the community expects from government services, the importance of government agencies sharing data and mechanisms for whole-of-government approaches to strategy, planning, problem solving and the delivery of services.  

EPA's role

The Report recommends several changes to the way the EPA interacts with other departments and agencies, including:

  • Land use planning: The EPA should take on a more strategic role.  This would be achieved via statutory triggers requesting EPA advice and early involvement, for example in planning scheme amendment and rezoning processes.
  • Emergency management: EPA's role should focus on providing expert advice to control agencies and aiding with prevention.
  • Mining: EPA's role in mining regulation should be strengthened, akin to the role of WorkSafe.

Whole-of-government approach

The report recommends the introduction of a high level Environment Protection (Integration and Coordination) Act to improve coordination across government.  It suggests that effective institutional arrangements will require clearly defined objectives, appropriately allocated roles and responsibilities, and effective mechanisms to promote coordination.

Environmental protection is not the responsibility of just one agency.  The report identifies several situations in which the whole-of-government approach is necessary, including:

  • development of policy around climate change, which will significantly impact the EPA, as well as other agencies involved in emergency management;
  • development of policy around environmental justice and the relevant health and wellbeing concerns, through the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning; and
  • a closer working relationship with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Chief Health Officer in relation to protecting human health.

This strategic and coordinated approach to problem solving and the delivery of government services was identified as something the community expected of the EPA, and of government generally.

Data sharing

Data sharing is an important issue closely tied to the need for a coordinated whole-of-government approach to environment protection more broadly.  An evidence base for decision making requires consistent and robust data, as well as having all parties 'at the table'.  There are data sharing initiatives already underway. However, the report recommends that the EPA and other agencies work toward improved systems for State-wide environmental monitoring, a spatial data system and reporting of health, environmental and liveability outcomes.

The Report recommends that the EPA develop a digital data, technology and analytics strategy to guide decision making.  Such improvements could aid data sharing across government as well as with stakeholders.  

Community expectations

It is clear that the changing landscape of stakeholder and community expectations of government have had a significant impact on the report.  The report envisages that the changing context of Victoria's environment, population and economy will lead to changes in stakeholder and community expectations of their environment, their local areas and the delivery of government services in the future.

The Government's response to the report is expected later in 2016.  For the Government's initial response please see here.  There may be significant changes underway for the EPA and the broader environment protection regime.  In the meantime, the report is a useful resource for all government agencies.

For further information on the outcomes of the Independent Inquiry into the EPA and its implications, please contact:

Natasha Maugueret
Managing Principal Solicitor
8684 0402

Mark Egan
Acting Managing Principal Solicitor
8684 0489

Annette Jones
Principal Solicitor
03 8684 0431

Thursday, 16 June 2016

When can you leave the past behind you?

In recent weeks, attention has been drawn to a federal election candidate in Western Australia who did not declare two spent convictions to the political party that had endorsed him as its election candidate.  The candidate has now been disendorsed by the political party and lost the opportunity to run for a seat in the Federal Parliament.
Aside from heightened scrutiny of candidates at election time, this situation raises a simple question, that does not always have a clear answer: what is a 'spent' conviction?  And in what circumstances does a person need to disclose such information to a government agency, employer or a non-government organisation?

The short answer is (in part) it will generally depend on the nature of the offence, when and where the offence was committed, and to what organisation or who you are providing the information.

What may surprise is that there is no spent conviction legislation in Victoria or formal rules that govern the disclosure of criminal history information.  However, Part VIIC of the Crimes Act 1914 (Cth) sets out the Commonwealth Spent Conviction Scheme.  All other jurisdictions in Australia have spent conviction schemes.


A person's history of any Victorian criminal convictions are held by and accessed through Victoria Police.

While Victoria has recently passed legislation which provides for the expungement of certain historical homosexual offences, it does not have a general statutory regime dealing with spent convictions.

However, Victoria Police has an Information Release Policy that it applies to requests for an individual's criminal conviction history.

The Information Release Policy states that, save for certain exceptions, no details of a prior offence will be disclosed if 10 years has passed since an adult was last found guilty of an offence.  A five year waiting period applies for persons under 18 years of age.  Therefore, details of a person's prior convictions will generally not be disclosed by Victoria Police in a criminal history check once the relevant waiting period has lapsed, and in the absence of further offending.  However, an individual's criminal history remains in the records of Victoria Police.  As such, despite the Information Release Policy, Victoria Police may exercise its discretion and disclose criminal history information depending on the purpose for which the information is sought and to whom it will be disclosed (e.g. where the information is required for employment with children, the elderly or disabled persons).


While Victoria does not have spent conviction legislation, Victoria Police’s Information Release Policy operates, in practice, in a similar way to the Commonwealth’s Spent Conviction Scheme in Part VIIC of the Crimes Act 1914.

Section 85ZM of the Crimes Act 1914 provides that a person's conviction for an offence will be spent if:
(a)  the person has been granted a pardon for a reason other than the person was wrongly convicted of the offence; or
(b)  the person was not sentenced to imprisonment for the offence, or was not sentenced to imprisonment for the offence for more than 30 months, and the waiting period for the offence has ended .

The scope of a person's rights and obligations under the scheme varies depending on:

  • whether the conviction is for a Commonwealth, state, territory or foreign offence
  • who or what type of authority or organisation knows or is being told about a spent conviction (ie a government authority or a non-government organisation)
  • where the person being told is located.
Generally, the Commonwealth scheme permits a person to not disclose a spent conviction:

  • to any person located in a state or territory of Australia a spent conviction for a Commonwealth offence;
  • to a Commonwealth authority a spent conviction for a state, territory offence or foreign offence.

The scheme also operates to allow a person to say under oath that they have not been charged with or convicted of an offence.

However, some categories and positions of employment are excluded from the Commonwealth scheme and require that a person must declare all convictions when applying for certain positions (eg a law enforcement agency has a right to information about a person's spent convictions for the purpose of making decisions in relation to prospective employees and contractors).

Other jurisdictions

In order to determine what a person’s rights are in relation to non-disclosure of a state or territory offence in Australian jurisdictions other than Victoria, the relevant spent conviction legislation will need to be consulted.

Take home points for individuals and government authorities

When determining whether they must disclose information about a prior conviction, individuals need to carefully consider where the offence was committed, the nature of the offence, how serious it was and what period of time has passed since it was committed.  While there can be a tension between a person disclosing their prior conviction history and their ability to put their past offending behind them and privacy, in some cases, disclosure of prior convictions will always be required, or at least expected, given the reason or purpose for which they are disclosing the information.  For individuals, ensure you read the fine print on what you are required or expected to disclose about your history of prior convictions and/or disciplinary offences to a government authority or non-government organisation.

Government authorities should ensure their application and consent forms clearly advise members of the public why and when they are required to disclose their prior conviction history, including what if any spent conviction scheme applies (including relevant exceptions) and how the information will be used.  Government authorities should also ensure they comply with privacy and data protection legislation when collecting information about a person's prior convictions.  This includes having privacy policies on how such information may be collected, used and disclosed.

Further information

- Victoria Police, National Police Certificates-Information Release Policy (2016)
- Part VIIC, Division 6 of the Crimes Act 1914 and Regulations 7A and 8 and Schedule 3 of the Crimes Regulations 1990
Sentencing Amendment (Historical Homosexual Convictions Expungement) Act 2014

Joanne Kummrow
Special Counsel
03 8684 0462

Michael Williams
03 8684 0471

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The Victorian Government Land Transactions Policy and Guidelines

The Victorian Government has recently released its new Land Transactions Policy and Guidelines (Policy and Guidelines).

The Policy sets out what is required of Victorian Government agencies when they buy, sell or lease land. It also sets out what is required when agencies provide compensation under the Land Acquisition and Compensation Act 1986 and Part 5 of the Planning and Environment Act 1987.

The Guidelines provide information and guidance to assist agencies to comply with the Policy's requirements.

The Policy's requirements apply to:

  • Victorian Government departments;
  • public statutory authorities;
  • legal entities established under State legislation for a purpose of the State (including those independent of government control);
  • companies in which the State has an interest; and
  • organisations, other than councils, which require statutory authorisation and/or ministerial approval, especially where public funds are involved in a land transaction.


The Policy and Guidelines replace the Victorian Government's Policy and Instructions for the purchase, compulsory acquisition and sale of land (Instructions), which were adopted by then-Minister for Planning, the Hon John Thwaites MP, in August 2000.

The Instructions were intended to ensure that Victorian Government agencies adopt 'a consistent best-practice approach to their property transactions.'

Introduction to the Policy

The core elements of the Policy are consistent with the old Instructions. Agencies generally must not sell any land at a price less than its current market value, or buy any land at a price greater than its current market value. For this purpose, agencies must obtain valuations from the Victorian Valuer-General (VGV). Agencies also require the approval of the Victorian Government Land Monitor (VGLM) for any transaction (or group of related transactions) where the value of that transaction is $750,000 or more. There are a range of procedural requirements for the sale of land. Agencies generally may only sell land through a public process, and must provide clear information to prospective purchasers as to potential uses to which the land may be put.

Key differences from the old Instructions

The Policy and Guidelines introduce some important changes, and provide greater clarity or renewed emphasis about particular matters.

First, the Policy now regulates leases. Agencies may only grant or acquire leases or other interests in land at market rental value or better, as determined by the VGV. An agency also must not grant a lease of land which contains an option to purchase, unless the lease is granted to another government agency. However, the Guidelines exempt significant categories of leases (at section 10.2). The Policy also does not apply to licences.

Secondly, the Policy places clearer assurance obligations on agencies to ensure that all transactions are conducted to achieve accountability and transparency. In relation to accountability, the Guidelines state that an agency must ensure that:

  • it has the legislative power to undertake the land transaction;
  • it has obtained all necessary approvals to proceed with the transaction;
  • appropriate delegation is in place where it is proposed an authorised officer of the agency approve and execute the transaction; and
  • roles, responsibilities, authority and accountability of agency officers involved in the transaction are clearly articulated and well understood.

In relation to transparency, land transactions must be supported by processes that provide evidence of transparency of actions, equity in dealings, confidentiality, probity assurance and management of conflicts of interest.

Third, the Policy and Guidelines provide more detailed guidance on the requirement for agencies to conduct an appropriate level of due diligence. Prior to the disposal, acquisition or lease of land, agencies must conduct an appropriate level of due diligence to ensure they are fully informed of the status and attributes of the land. The depth of due diligence required will vary from transaction to transaction, but the Guidelines cover the following areas:

  • legal (specifically, ownership of and authority to deal with the land, and any encumbrances on the land);
  • public land values (in respect of Crown land);
  • survey;
  • planning;
  • contamination and pollution;
  • cultural heritage; and
  • Native Title and Traditional Owner Rights.

The Guidelines provide a helpful due diligence checklist in Appendix 1, to assist agencies in becoming fully informed as to the status and attributes of the relevant land. Appendix 2 contains a VGLM checklist, to assist agencies in deciding when to seek approval or assistance from the VGLM.

Fourth, the Policy sets out clearly the circumstances in which it does not apply to particular transactions. The Policy provides a list of exempted transactions in section 2(d).

A full copy of the Policy is available on the website of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning at We understand that the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and the VGV will be promoting the Policy and Guidelines in coming months.

In the mean time, if you would like further advice on the new Policy and Guidelines, please contact:

Anthony Leggiero
Managing Principal Solicitor
Property Team
9947 1430

Mark Egan
Acting Managing Principal Solicitor
Land Acquisition, Planning and Environment Team
8684 0489

Margaret Marotti
Managing Principal Solicitor
Property Team
9947 1410

Elizabeth Wortley
Senior Solicitor
Property Team
9947 1433

Monday, 23 May 2016

Moving forward with information sharing

Many public servants would have tuned in to an episode of ABC's satirical comedy Utopia, in which the fictional Nation Building Authority muddles its way through an FOI request. FOI is an important part of government accountability and transparency.  The episode reminds us that responding to FOI requests can be complex.  This handy guide provides a quick reminder of the key steps to follow when processing an FOI request.  While FOI requests can be made to both agencies and Ministers, this post primarily deals with the former.

Practical assistance is also provided by the Attorney-General Guidelines on the Responsibilities and Obligations of Principal Officers and Agencies (December 2009).  Regard should also be had to the Attorney-General's Freedom of Information Professional Standards (2014).

Steps in processing an FOI request

1.      What are the criteria for a valid request?

The first step is to determine whether a request is valid under s 17 of the FOI Act.  A request will be valid if it is:
         in writing;
·         provides information to enable identification of the documents; and
·         encloses the application fee, which may be waived or reduced if it would cause hardship to the applicant.

The application fee is 2 fee units, which currently totals $27.20

If a request is not valid, the agency has a duty to assist the applicant to make a valid request or direct a request to the appropriate agency (s 17(3)).

2.      How quickly must a request be processed?

Once an agency receives a valid FOI request, all reasonable steps must be taken to notify the applicant of the decision as soon as possible and no later than 45 calendar (not business) days after the request was received (s 21).  

If you work for an agency and receive an FOI request, but you are not an FOI officer, you should forward the request to the appropriate person in your agency.  You can find out who the FOI officer is by looking in your agency's 'Part II' statement.  This is a reference to Part II of the FOI Act, which requires that certain information is published and available to the public.  As an example, the Part II statement of the Department of Justice and Regulation is available online here

3.      What if a request is voluminous?

An agency may refuse access to documents if the request is so voluminous that processing it would divert the agency's resources substantially and unreasonably from its other operations (s 25A(1)(a)).  Before refusing a request for this reason, the agency must contact the applicant and offer to assist him or her to make the request in a form that would remove this ground for refusal (s 25A(6)).

4.      How is a request processed?

Once a request is assessed as valid, a thorough and diligent search must be conducted to locate all documents within the terms of the request.  This search can be conducted by the relevant business area of an agency under the supervision of the FOI officer.

'Document' includes a document in writing, as well as maps, plans, graphs, drawings, photographs, sound tracks, film, and any words, figures, letters or symbols which have meaning (s 5).

If the search does not return any relevant documents, the agency may determine that they do not possess any documents that fall within the terms of the request.

5.      What exemptions may apply to a document?

An applicant is not entitled to a document (or a part of a document) if an exemption applies to that document (or that part of a document).  Each document must be reviewed to determine if all or any part of a document may be exempt.  If an exemption applies, consideration must be given to whether the document can be released with exempt matter redacted (s 25).

Exemptions include:
·         Cabinet documents (s 28)
·         documents containing matter communicated by the Commonwealth or any State or Territory (s 29)
·         documents affecting national security, defence or international relations (s 29A)
·         documents of Court Services Victoria (s 29B)
·         internal working documents (s 30)
·         law enforcement documents (s 31)
·         documents affecting legal professional privilege (s 32)
·         documents affecting personal privacy (s 33)
·         commercial information of a third party or where the agency is engaged in trade and commerce (s 34)
·         documents containing material obtained in confidence (s 35)
·         disclosure contrary to the public interest (s 36)
·         certain documents arising out of companies and securities legislation (s 37)
·         documents to which secrecy provisions apply (s 38)
·         Council documents (s 38A)

Many of the above exemptions contain a public interest test, which is designed to balance competing factors in favour of either providing or preventing access to documents.

6.      What decisions may an agency make in respect of a document?

After any applicable exemptions have been identified, a decision must made as to whether to:
·         exempt a document in full;
·         release a document in part (with exempt material deleted); or
·         release a document in full.

Even if a document is to be released in part or in full, an agency may defer access if the document has been prepared for presentation to Parliament or a Council or for release to the press (s 24).

Notice of the decision must be provided in writing to an applicant (s 27) and must include:
·         the findings on any material questions of fact (eg, if an exemption applies), the material on which those findings was based, and the reason for the decision;
·         the name and designation of the person making the decision;
·         whether exempt information has been deleted from a document; and
·         information about the right to seek a review of the decision, including where to seek review and the time limit for seeking review.

7.      How can an FOI decision be reviewed?

After an agency has provided notice of a decision under the FOI Act to an applicant, he or she has 28 days to apply to the Freedom of Information Commissioner for review of the that decision (ss 49A, 49B).  However, the following decisions are not reviewable by the FOI Commissioner:
·         a decision made by the Minister or the principal officer of any agency (s 49A(3));
·         a decision refusing access to a document on the basis of the exemption under s 28, namely Cabinet documents (s 49A(4)); and
·         a decision refusing access to a document on the basis of the exemption under s 29A, namely documents affecting national security, defence or international relations (s 49A(4)).

A decision of the Commissioner is in turn reviewable by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ss 50(1)(b) and (c)).  An application to the VCAT must be made within 60 days of notice of the decision (s 52).

Applicants may also apply to VCAT for review of the following decisions:
·         a decision of the principal officer of an agency or a Minister refusing to grant access to a document in accordance with a request (s 50(1)(a));
·         a decision of an agency refusing to grant access to a document in accordance with a request, if the FOI Commissioner has made a determination under s 49G(1) not to accept an application for review or has dismissed a review (s 50(1)(d)).
·         a decision of an agency refusing to grant access to a document that is claimed to be exempt under s 28 (Cabinet documents) or s 29A (documents affecting national security, defence or international relations) (s 50(1)(e)).
·         a decision under s 24 by the principal officer of an agency or a Minister deferring the provision of access to a document (s 50(1)(f)).
·         a decision as to the amount of a charge that is required to be paid before access to a document is granted, if the FOI Commissioner has certified that the matter is one of the sufficient importance for VCAT to consider (s 50(1)(g)).

A decision of VCAT is also reviewable by the Supreme Court on an error of law.

Proposed Office of the Public Access Counsellor

The Government has also indicated its intention to create a new Office of the Public Access Counsellor, which will replace the Office of the FOI Commissioner.  The Special Minister of State has informed the Legislative Council that the Office will be established in 2016 and work has commenced to prepare the required legislation.  

The Office of the Public Access Counsellor will:
  •  have the ability to review ministerial and departmental decisions to not release documents under the Cabinet-in-Confidence exemption;
  • set FOI standards; and
  • have a broader mandate to help Victorians understand how to access government information.

VGSO's FOI experts can help Victorian government bodies to respond to FOI requests.  We can also assist with reviews of an FOI decision before the FOI Commissioner, VCAT or the Supreme Court.

Managing Principal Solicitor
8684 0450

Principal Solicitor
8684 0413

Thank you for not smoking

Think you have a right to smoke? Turns out you don't - or at least, not if you're on the premises of Thomas Embling Hospital, where a decision to implement a complete smoking ban was recently upheld by the Supreme Court in De Bruyn v Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health [2016] VSC 111.

The plaintiff's case 

Thomas Embling Hospital is a forensic psychiatric hospital whose patients include persons found unfit to plead or not guilty of a crime by reason of mental impairment. The plaintiff was found not guilty of the murder of his mother by reason of insanity in 1989, and has been an involuntary patient of the Hospital since the year 2000.

The plaintiff sought to challenge the Hospital's decision to implement a smoking ban on its grounds by arguing, amongst other things, that the Hospital had breached section 38 of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006. That section requires public authorities to act compatibly with human rights, and to give proper consideration to relevant human rights when making decisions. The Attorney-General, represented by the VGSO, intervened to make submissions on the application of the Charter.

The plaintiff argued that the smoking ban affected the right of all persons deprived of liberty to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person (s 22(1) of the Charter), the right of an accused person or a person detained without charge to be treated in a way that is appropriate for a person who has not been convicted (s 22(3)), and the right not to be subjected to medical treatment without consent (s 10(c)). He also raised the property right (s 20), as he was concerned that the Hospital proposed to confiscate his smoking paraphernalia.

The decision

The Hospital and the Attorney-General argued that none of the rights identified by the plaintiff were engaged by the smoking ban. Justice Riordan agreed, finding that the ban was a comprehensive, properly considered policy adopted after extensive consultation with patients, and although it was likely to cause some distress to the plaintiff, its purpose was to protect patients, staff and visitors from the harmful effects of smoking.  It did not interfere with the plaintiff's dignity or humanity, and further, it did not constitute 'medical treatment' as it did not involve any direct interference with the body or state of mind of an individual.

His Honour found that the plaintiff was neither 'accused' nor 'a person detained without charge' for the purposes of the right in s 22(3), and even if he were, the smoking ban did not constitute inappropriate treatment for an unconvicted person. Finally, his Honour held that the right to property was not engaged because there was no evidence that Mr de Bruyn would be permanently deprived of his smoking paraphernalia. The plaintiff's application was dismissed.

What is 'proper consideration'?

Justice Riordan's decision includes a helpful summary of what it means to give 'proper consideration' to relevant human rights. Key things for decision-makers to remember are:
  • You must seriously turn your mind to the possible impact of a decision on a person's human rights.
  • If the decision may limit rights, you must identify the countervailing interests or obligations that would justify the limit.
  • It's not enough to provide a 'pro forma' explanation of the impact on Charter rights - giving human rights proper consideration is more than just a box-ticking exercise.
  • On the other hand, you don't need to identify the 'correct' right or specific Charter provision, or explain the content of a right by reference to legal principles or jurisprudence. You only need to identify in general terms the nature and extent of the effect on the person's rights.
  • After identifying the actual rights affected, you must balance the competing private and public interests to determine if any limit is justifiable. There is no formula for this exercise - it will depend on the circumstances. Justice Riordan reiterated earlier judicial statements that this process should not be scrutinised overzealously by the courts.

    Consider the evidence

    The Hospital's evidence in this matter, which included evidence that the Hospital had consulted extensively with patients and sought specific legal advice on Charter issues, is a great example of a public authority being able to show genuine attention being given to Charter rights.

    Of course, this level of evidence won't always be necessary, particularly for day-to-day decisions with only minor rights impacts. However, if you're making a decision that will affect human rights, it's helpful to think about how you might demonstrate that you've given those rights proper consideration in case it later becomes an issue. Depending on the nature of the decision, you may find that a quick file note, a chat with the affected person could save a lot of trouble down the track. For more significant interferences with rights, you may wish to consider preparing a formal rights impact assessment, or even seeking legal advice to ensure that your decision is compatible with your obligations under the Charter.

    If you work in the Victorian public service and require further information on this case or advice on your human rights obligations, please contact:

    Senior Solicitor
    8684 0425      

    Managing Principal Solicitor
    8684 0247