What is the issue?
A recent decision of the Court of Appeal identifies seven factors to be considered and assessed in determining whether an overflow of water onto land is reasonable. These factors may have relevance to statutory agencies, Departments, Ministers and authorities responsible for public land or public infrastructure in particular, at times of heavy rainfall.
What was decided?
The Court of Appeal in Hazelwood Power Partnership v Latrobe City Council held that the Morwell Main Drain was not a public drain for the purposes of the Water Act 1989. Following that conclusion, the Court of Appeal considered whether the flow of water from the Morwell Industrial Estate and from the township of Morwell into the Morwell Main Drain was unreasonable.
Historically, the test of lawfulness for flow of water related to whether the landowner was uphill or downhill. Called the 'free flow principle', it was considered that an owner of lower land was obliged to receive all flows of surface water onto his or her land that occurred naturally from the higher land. The Water Act 1989 replaced the 'free flow principle' with a 'reasonableness' test. That is, the question is no longer whether a flow of water is 'natural' but whether it is 'reasonable'.
The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial Judge's finding that the flow onto the Hazelwood land of waters generated in substantial part by the municipal drains on higher ground was reasonable. The seven key factors considered in concluding that the flow of water was 'reasonable' were:
- the contours of the land;
- the use of the lands concerned and the lands in the vicinity;
- the limited sense in which the water flow complained of from the Council drains could be said to be something other than a natural flow (ie, the 'free flow' principle);
- the purpose for which and degree of care with which the Morwell Main Drain was originally constructed by the SECV in 1949;
- there was no evidence of a lack of appropriate regard to the cumulative impact of the subsequent drainage works which occurred over time;
- the fact that all drainage works were assumed to have appropriate statutory authority;
- the fact of prior consent or acquiescence to the flows of water for more than 60 years, since the Morwell Main Drain was first constructed by the SECV for the purpose of diverting flows of storm and rain water run-off from entering the open cut mine.
The Court of Appeal noted that the flow of water carries an ongoing risk of serious damage to the Hazelwood land and the northern batters in particular. However in this case, the flow was considered to be reasonable.
What does it mean for me?
The Court of Appeal has provided decision-makers (and those who advise them) guidance in assessing the question of reasonableness of flow of water from public land or infrastructure into private drains or onto privately held land, identifying seven relevant considerations.
Acting Victorian Government Solicitor
 Hazelwood Power Partnership v Latrobe City Council  VSCA 129 (Warren CJ, Osborn and Beach JJ). See further, section 20 of the Water Act 1989
  VSCA 129