Friday 24 October 2014

High Court upholds broad anti-consorting laws (is it time to "unfriend" your bikie mates on Facebook..?)

New South Wales had a win on 8 October 2014, with the High Court upholding laws making it a crime to 'consort' with convicted offenders are valid (Tajjour v NSW; Hawthorne v NSW; Forster v NSW [2014] HCA 35). You can read the full judgment here.

The anti-consorting legislation empowers police to give people a notice to not 'habitually consort' with named persons.  'Consorting' is quite widely defined under the relevant legislation and includes consorting via electronic media, for example via Facebook or Twitter.  Breach of the notice is an offence.  The case involved a challenge by three plaintiffs (two of whom were members of the Nomads bikie gang) who had each been given a notice, and were subsequently charged with consorting.

The plaintiffs all argued that the legislation breached the constitutionally implied freedom of political communication.  Two also argued that it breached a constitutionally implied right to freedom of association, and that it was invalid for inconsistency with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

All of the grounds raised by the plaintiffs failed.

The laws are appropriate for stopping crime

A majority of 6:1 found that the anti-consorting provisions burden the implied freedom, but that the provisions are appropriate and adapted to serve the legitimate end of the prevention of crime in a manner compatible with the maintenance of the constitutionally prescribed system of representative government (see below for Justice Gageler's distinct approach).  The High Court noted that the provisions do not unduly limit all political communications, or occasions for such communications, and that the proscribed consorting would need to be 'habitual' for the prohibition to apply, which again limited the scope of the prohibition.

But such laws could be read down in future

Justice Gageler, reaching the same conclusion via a different route, found that the provisions are not appropriate and adapted to the purpose of preventing crime, where they limit communications on political matters.  However, he found that the provisions could be read down to exclude 'consorting which is or forms part of an association for a purpose of engaging in communication on governmental or political matter', and the legislation was saved on this basis.  If this approach finds favour in future, it could lead to different results, with laws being held to not apply to political communication.

Only Chief Justice French dissented, in finding that the legislation was not appropriate and adapted because it applied to what he referred to as 'entirely innocent habitual consorting'.  The Chief Justice therefore found the provisions to be invalid.

As for the other grounds, the Court found that the freedom of association was either unnecessary to consider or could not be implied into the Constitution, and unanimously rejected the proposition that a treaty which has not been incorporated into Commonwealth law could circumscribe the legislative power of State Parliaments.

What does this mean for Victoria?

If similar legislation were introduced in Victoria, its interpretation and application would be affected by the processes required under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006, which expressly protects rights to freedom of expression and association.  The approach to determining any challenge to hypothetical similar Victorian laws may involve different considerations depending on how the legislation is framed and the nature of the dispute between parties. In determining whether Charter Act rights are limited in such a case, the court would need to engage in a balancing exercise that may involve similar considerations as those considered in this case.  Ultimately, the outcome would depend upon whether any limitation of Charter Act rights could be shown to be lawful and justified.

If you are in the Victorian Government and require advice on constitutional or human rights issues, we can help.

VGSO will be presenting a seminar, open to all Victorian Government client agencies, on this case and its implications.  It will be held on Wednesday, 19 November 2014, from 12:30-2:00pm at Level 33, 80 Collins Street, Melbourne. Please register your interest in attending by emailing

For further information about the topic contact:

Adrian Hoel
Principal Solicitor
t: 8684 0244

Nahal Zebarjadi
t: 8684 0401

Monday 20 October 2014

Changing Times: Sex discrimination damages on the rise as the 'old range' debunked by 'community standards'

The Full Court of the Federal Court has blown the lid off what key commentators have been calling the discrimination damages time capsule. In Richardson v Oracle an award at trial of $18,000 for pain and suffering caused by sexual harassment at IT company, Oracle, was increased to $100,000 on appeal. The decision has some lawyers quoting Bob Dylan's 'the time's they are a-changin'. So, what happened, and why the revolutionary tenor?

The Full Court did two main things - both are critical for public sector employers who could be liable for unlawful conduct by their employees.

1. 'Unofficial range' rejected

Justice Kenny (with whom Besanko and Perram JJ agreed) held that the $18,000 awarded by the trial Judge was 'manifestly inadequate' compensation for Ms Richardson's pain and suffering. In doing so, the Court rejected a long-standing unofficial range of between $12,000 and $20,000 within which damages for all but the most extreme sexual harassment injuries have previously been awarded.

While her Honour accepted that the trial Judge fixed a sum squarely 'within the range', this was not, as her Honour put it, 'the end of the matter'. The Court identified a 'substantial disparity' between Ms Richardson's compensation and the amounts now awarded outside the sex discrimination space to victims of workplace bullying and harassment (especially in Victoria). After highlighting the dangers of relying too heavily on an unofficial range at all, the Court rejected it. The range had, her Honour stated, 'remained unchanged' for over a decade 'notwithstanding that the community has generally gained a deeper appreciation of the experience of hurt and humiliation that victims of sexual harassment experience'.

Once the range was cast aside, the Court assessed Ms Richardson's loss by reference to 'general standards prevailing in the community' regarding the value of her pain and suffering: In this case, the amount was determined to be $100,000.

2. Damages awarded for Ms Richardson's 'choice to leave'

Perram and Besanko JJ (with whom Kenny J agreed) also overturned the trial Judge's finding that Oracle was not liable for Ms Richardson's financial loss upon leaving the company. Although she was not constructively dismissed or demoted, Oracle was still liable for Ms Richardson's loss. The clincher here was causation. Even though Oracle had not 'forced her out', it was liable once she 'chose' to leave because this 'choice' was itself caused by the sexual harassment. Such an analysis is not entirely new, but in Richardson the Court applied these principles to what may be a very common series of events where sexual harassment is proven.


So what does this mean for the public sector? In short, it seems the times are a changin'.

This decision confirms that, as always, employers must take sexual harassment in the workplace seriously. A failure to do so can now amount to higher damages than traditionally awarded against employers who are held to be vicariously liable for an employee's discriminatory conduct. The impact of the sexual harassment in this case, although significant, was not considered to be traumatic. Nevertheless, Ms Richardson was awarded $100,000 in recognition that 'community standards' and expectation have altered.

It is also important to bear in mind that these principles could be applied more generally in cases involving unlawful discrimination on the basis of other attributes, such as disability, race or age discrimination. The decision, therefore, has significant implications beyond cases involving sexual harassment.

Richardson is a timely reminder to review your agency's anti-discrimination policies and provide appropriate training to ensure that all employees are aware of the law and their obligations under it.
For further information about the case, advice on your agency’s anti-discrimination policies or how to keep up with the law involving anti- discrimination, please contact:

Vicki Moulatsiotis
Principal Solicitor
t 9032 3012

Katherine Francis
Senior Solicitor
t 9032 3014

Hollie Kerwin
t 8684 0241

Wednesday 1 October 2014

White Paper on Reform of the Federation - what's in it for the States?

Australians want good services and infrastructure with minimal red tape, but accountability is important, and dividing up responsibilities and duties in our constitutional system isn't always easy. While the States have significant responsibilities for service delivery, the Commonwealth is more able to raise revenue to pay for those services. 

There are some areas that are better dealt with locally. There are other areas where a coordinated national approach is appropriate. But which approach is best and when? What does our constitutional system allow? 

The White Paper on Reform of the Federation will hopefully shed some light on these questions.

Just what is a white paper anyway?

A white paper is a report or guide helping stakeholders understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision. White papers tend to present a finished outcome, and so there are often green papers along the way. Green papers are usually more open-ended, presenting a range of options to facilitate consultation and help government reach a decision. And before the green papers, there may be issues papers as high level backgrounders on discrete topics. 

What's happening when?

The terms of reference for the White Paper on the Reform of the Federation were released on 30 June 2014. The first Issues Paper, "A Federation for our Future", was released 12 September 2014, and includes a detailed history of Australia's federal system. 

The Commonwealth will prepare further Issues Papers on health, education, housing and homelessness. The White Paper process will also consider transport and infrastructure, Indigenous affairs, justice, disability, welfare services, settlement services, family and parental support, disaster recovery, environmental regulation, adult and community education, and youth transitions. 

A Green Paper setting out options for reform will be released during the first half of 2015. The final White Paper setting out the Commonwealth's position is to be released by the end of 2015.

Why is the White Paper on Reform of the Federation important?

The White Paper has lofty aims: to clarify the roles and responsibilities of each level of government, to improve fiscal sustainability, and in turn help the public understand the federal system better and make interacting with government easier. 

In recent years there has been an accelerating trend towards centralisation of policy and funding in many areas, due in part to the High Court's broad interpretation of Commonwealth powers under the Constitution. 

The Commonwealth has indicated an intention to apply the principle of "subsidiarity" (or decentralisation), whereby responsibility for government services lie with the lowest possible level of government, closest to the beneficiaries of the services. 

How this might happen in practice is where it gets interesting. Under the Constitution, the Commonwealth has limited power over subject matters but broad power to tax. The States have been left with few independent revenue sources but have broad responsibilities, meaning that they are reliant on Commonwealth funding for key areas of service delivery. With funding comes the need for accountability.

As part of the White Paper process, the 2008 Inter-Governmental Agreement on Federal-Financial Relations will be revisited. That Agreement was executed with the intention to improve autonomy for States, but over time, funding agreements with restrictive conditions (also known as "tied grants") have increased. 

This time around revenue will also be on the agenda, with the White Paper on the Reform of the Federation to be closely aligned with the White Paper on the Reform of Australia’s Tax System (for which the terms of reference are yet to be released).

Will the Commonwealth propose constitutional reform? If it doesn’t, how will the Commonwealth resist the urge to impose restrictive conditions on the States receiving federal funds, just as it has since 2008? If it does, will there be bipartisan support for the proposal so that it stands a chance of satisfying our rigorous constitutional amendment process?

Where to from here? 

A Steering Committee will oversee the White Paper process, chaired by the Commonwealth and with representation from the State and Territory representatives First Ministers’ departments and the Australian Local Government Association. It will be a standing item on the COAG agenda. Details on the public consultation process to be released soon on the website at

VGSO's experts in constitutional law and intergovernmental relations can help Victorian government bodies if you require advice on engaging with the White Paper process. 

VGSO contacts:

Managing Principal Solicitor
 t 8684 0220

Managing Principal Solicitor
t 8684 0899