Tuesday 10 September 2013

How to sue the government

As government lawyers, you may receive originating processes served on your department or agency.  One of the first questions you should ask is whether it identifies the correct State party.

This is not always as easy as it seems.  Here’s an overview of the basic rules.

Of course, if you are served with documents and you intend to engage our office, you should do so as soon as possible to ensure you meet the deadlines for filing response documents.

Civil and constitutional cases

Federal courts

In federal courts, the State must bring any suit in the name of the Attorney-General of Victoria or his appointee.  But in the rare situation that the State responds to an action in a federal court, the correct party would generally be the State of Victoria (as here).

To serve the State in a Federal or High Court proceeding, you should serve the Attorney-General or the VGSO (on his behalf).  Our service details are here.

State courts

To sue the Victorian government in a State court, the correct party is generally the State of Victoria.

This includes where the State of Victoria is vicariously liable for the torts of its servants or agents.  However, if the grievance is with a statutory corporation about a contract it has entered into or a tort of any of its servants or agents, the correct party is the relevant statutory corporation.

In all State courts, service of documents on the State of Victoria is via the VGSO.
We are also authorised to accept service on behalf of Ministers.

Judicial review (in the Supreme Court)

In judicial review proceedings (whether brought under Order 56 or the Administrative Law Act), the application for review or originating motion must be directed to:

  • the relevant decision-maker (or its members); and
  • any party interested in maintaining the decision.

For example, in this case, the Municipal Building Surveyor had issued notices asking a property owner to demonstrate why he was permitted under the Building Act to use some flats at Docklands as serviced apartments.  The property owner appealed the notices to the Building Appeals Board, who dismissed the Appeal.  The parties to the Supreme Court judicial review proceeding were:

  • as plaintiff – the property owner;
  • as first defendant – the Building Appeals Board (who took a Hardiman position, that is, took no active role in the proceeding);
  • as second defendant – the person fulfilling the role of Municipal Building Surveyor who issued the notices; and
  • as third defendant – the Council who appointed the Surveyor.

If the decision-maker is a judicial or public authority or the holder of public office, he or she should be described by the name of the authority or office.  For example, in this case, the defendant was correctly identified as the “Health Services Commissioner” (an office created by statute), rather than the name of the person who held the office at the time. 

What if the body that made the decision is not a legal entity?  For example, in this case, the respondent was the Appeals Costs Board – a statutory body comprised of a number of people appointed by the Attorney-General that was not a body corporate.  The Supreme Court said the proper respondents were the particular members of the Board who made the decisions sought to be reviewed.

Finally, it is important to identify the person or body who actually made the decision being challenged.  In this case, a prisoner sought (amongst other things) an injunction allowing him to send a letter to one of his victims.  He applied for an injunction against the Commissioner for Corrections.  But under the Corrections Act, it is the Governor of a prison that has the power to stop letters from prisoners, not the Commissioner.  The Court asked for the application to be brought against the correct defendant.

Merits review (in VCAT)

In a merits review proceeding, the parties are:

  • the applicant;
  • the decision-maker who made the decision;
  • any person joined as a party to the proceeding by the Tribunal; and
  • any other person specified by legislation as a party (for example, co-owners of land in an application to sell co-owned land).

As with judicial review, a decision-maker who is the holder of a public office or holds a position in the public service is to be described by their position.

Unlike judicial review, a person whose interests are affected by the decision does not have a right to party status.  The tribunal may decide not to join a party if their joinder would cause expense or delay.

Also unlike judicial review, the appropriate respondent may be an unincorporated body. For example, in freedom of information cases, unincorporated bodies can be considered the ‘agency’ that made the decision.

And finally, unlike judicial review, the decision-maker who made the decision may not take a Hardiman approach and must play an active role in the proceeding, helping the Tribunal understand the decision.

If you are in the Victorian government and have been served with court documents, please contact:

Stephen Lee
Assistant Victorian Government Solicitor
t 8684 0410

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