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What is “administrative law”?

Introduction

Administrative law is an area of law that you will need to rely on if you wish to challenge a decision or action of a government official, department or authority. Administrative law may also apply when the person whose decision you wish to challenge is not a government officer but is exercising “public power” (e.g. a power granted to a person by a statute). Decisions or actions governed by administrative law are called (in this chapter) “administrative decisions”.

Administrative law usually only enables decisions (or actions) that are “administrative” in nature to be challenged. In other words, there are other types of “decisions” made in government that are not governed by administrative law. The following are examples of decisions that may not be governed by administrative law:

  • legislative “decisions” (e.g. the making of laws; however, delegated legislation may be reviewable on a similar basis to administrative decisions);
  • broad policy decisions (e.g. deciding to reduce a grants program);
  • employment decisions (e.g. decisions to hire an employee; however, administrative law may apply to public service misconduct decisions);
  • criminal cases (e.g. decisions to prosecute; however, administrative law does apply to investigations); and
  • contract decisions (e.g. decisions by government to enter into a contract; however, tender processes may be subject to some administrative law principles).

Examples of administrative decisions that you may be able to challenge using administrative law principles and mechanisms include decisions:

  • by a council to compulsorily acquire land;
  • by ASIC to declare a person not fit and proper to hold a financial services licence;
  • by a minister not to grant a visa;
  • of Centrelink to cease paying a benefit; and
  • to impose conditions on a licence.

Administrative decisions are usually made by government officers, but may also be made by people who work in corporations or alone. If the decision involves “statutory power” then it is likely to be regulated by administrative law.

Challenging administrative decisions

There are four main types of “review” of administrative decisions:

  1. a reconsideration by the original decision-maker;
  2. a specific statutory right to review of the decision “on the merits” (internally or by a tribunal such as the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal);
  3. judicial review by a court; or
  4. complaint to a body such as the relevant ombudsman.

There are also appeal mechanisms in administrative law. For example, an appeal from a tribunal decision on a question of law may be made to a court if the legislation allows for it, or a tribunal may conduct a form of appeal against a decision maker’s decision. Always check the legislationfor the specific type of review or appeal that may be available.

This chapter provides a brief overview of reconsideration, merits review, judicial review, and Ombudsman review, and describes the steps you should take if you are considering challenging an administrative decision. Each type of review is discussed in more depth in Chapters 21.2: Judicial Review, 21.3: Administrative Appeals Tribunals and 21.4: Ombudsman.

Reconsideration

As long as the original decision-maker has not “exhausted” their power, they may be able to reconsider their decision. Always consider this option first, subject to any time limits that might restrict other forms of review. If you are not sure, you may ask the decision-maker whether they are prepared to reconsider the matter. Generally speaking, if more than one person’s “rights” are at stake, reconsideration may not be possible. For example, if there are limits to the number of licences a decision-maker may grant, and a licence has been granted to someone else instead of you, reconsideration of your matter might not be available, because it might impact on their right to that licence.

Check the case of Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs v Bhardwaj (2002) 209 CLR 597 if you want a decision-maker to reconsider their decision, if the decision-maker may have made “jurisdictional errors”.

Review on the merits

A review “on the merits” generally means that a person will look again at a decision that has been made and make what they think is the “correct and preferable” decision instead. (Check the relevant legislation for the limits of the merits review.) The person conducting the review will usually be able to consider any additional material you wish to provide to them and come to their own decision about the facts of the case. They will then be able to substitute their own decision for the decision originally made.

You will only have a rightto a review of an administrative decision “on the merits” if an Act or Regulation gives you that right.

A right of review “on the merits” can be a very valuable right. If you are unhappy with an administrative decision or action you should carefully read the Act or Regulation under which the decision was made to see if it gives you an express right of review. (Also check the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975(Cth) (“AAT Act”) if the decision is a Commonwealth decision; and the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act 1998 (Vic) (“VCAT Act”) if the decision is a Victorian decision.)

Some laws give wide rights of merits review, while others give none. The right of review may be to a higher official, a minister, a specialist tribunal (within or outside the departmental framework), or to an independent general tribunal, such as the Commonwealth Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) or the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).

One of the most common rights of review is a right of review to a general tribunal such as the AAT or VCAT. Appeals of this nature are dealt with in greater depth in Chapter 21.3: Administrative Appeals Tribunals.

Judicial review

Judicial review is review by a court, which determines whether the decision complained about is unlawful and of no effect. The court then exercises its discretion regarding whether or not to grant relief. The court usually has no power to review the decision “on its merits” or determine whether or not it was a decision the court would have made. The court only has the power to review the decision to see whether the decision-maker made the decision lawfully. However, some of the “grounds of review” do require some consideration of the merits of the case (e.g. if the decision-maker took into account an irrelevant consideration, or if the decision is manifestly unreasonable). And occasionally, when jurisdictional error is alleged, the court may need to make findings of fact.

Judicial review vs merits review explained

One of the most difficult things to understand in administrative law is the difference between judicial review and merits review. It is important to understand this difference when analysing the decision you wish to challenge, and the potential basis for such a challenge. In Administrative Power and the Law (Fiona McKenzie, 2007, pp. 12–13), the difference has been explained by way of analogy as follows:

The decision maker stands poised to make an administrative decision. Before making the decision, they must embark on a journey down a path which leads to an orchard. Trees from within the orchard’s boundaries contain a variety of fruits. Any fruit may be picked – any decision may be made – as long as it is from a tree planted within the boundaries of the orchard.

(This represents “discretion”.)

There is only one lawful path to the orchard. If the decision maker digresses, strays off the path, and picks some fruit from a tree outside the path, it will not be fruit from a tree in the orchard … If the decision maker strays off the path, they will not be making a lawful decision …

What if a fruit from a tree outside the orchard is picked? If challenged, the reviewer (whether a court or tribunal) may throw away the fruit (set aside or quash the decision). The court can only throw it away if it is unlawful (outside the orchard). The merits review decision maker can throw it away for any reason (i.e. fruits from inside and outside the orchard may be discarded). The merits review decision maker … may select a new fruit for consumption, after walking down the path to the orchard in order to find it. If the reviewer is a judicial review decision maker, that is, a court, they may order another decision maker to start the process again and choose a new fruit. The court on judicial review will generally not stand in the shoes of the decision maker and walk down the path in order to choose a new fruit …

(See the book for a useful picture of this analogy. See www.adminlaw.com.au to order the book.)

Complaint to the Ombudsman

In addition to the above forms of review, you can often complain to a complaints body such as the relevant Ombudsman. However, an Ombudsman is usually a last resort – you should exhaust other merits or judicial review options first. The Ombudsman investigates complaints about decisions of government officers and agencies, as well as systemic issues, and has a discretion as to whether or not any complaint should be investigated.

It is best to try to solve the problem directly with the relevant agency first before approaching an Ombudsman. After the investigation, the Ombudsman will make a report but cannot directly overturn the original decision or substitute their decision for that under review. The functions of the state and Commonwealth Ombudsmen are discussed in Chapter 21.4: Ombudsman.

Note:There are also industry-based ombudsmen; however, if they are not set up by a statute, they are not part of the administrative law framework.

What is “administrative law”? :: Last updated: Sun Jun 30th 2013