Review by a court is called judicial review. It tests the legality of the decision and whether the official had power to make it, and made it fairly, without error of law or failure to consider something relevant. It doesn’t re-decide the matter on its merits.
Nature of judicial review
Judicial review enables a person aggrieved by an administrative decision (or refusal to make a decision, or action, or inaction) to seek review by a court of the lawfulness of that decision.
The court will not review a decision in order to determine whether or not it was the right decision to make (this would be a “review on the merits”).
The court will only review a decision so as to determine whether it was a lawful decision (i.e. whether it was within the power of the decision-maker). (For an explanation of the difference between judicial review and merits review, see “Types of review of administrative decisions”.)
If the court finds that the decision was not a lawful decision, it may set aside that decision. Normally, the court will then remit the decision back to the original decision-maker to be made again. (Research shows that the fresh decision is often more favourable to an applicant than the first decision that was set aside.)
Judicial review is a complicated and specialist area of law. You should consider seeking legal advice before commencing any judicial review proceeding.
Judicial review must normally be sought in a superior court, such as the Victorian Supreme Court, the Federal Court or even the High Court.
Before you commence a proceeding seeking judicial review you need to:
• determine what remedies you seek;
• make sure you comply with any applicable time limits (see “Judicial review: the importance of time limits”);
• make sure you have standing to challenge the action (see “Judicial review: establishing standing to sue”); and
• select one or more grounds of review.
When assessing a decision complained about, it is important to consider what the court can review, that is, the grounds of judicial review, as early as possible. You can look first for the most common grounds, that is:
• a breach of natural justice;
• an error of law; or
• a failure to take into account a relevant consideration.
These are typical areas where decision-makers fall into error. (The specific grounds for judicial review are explained in more depth at the end of this chapter, see “Grounds of judicial review”.)
Section 5 of the ADJR Act lists the grounds of judicial review, which largely reflect the common law grounds at both federal and state levels, as follows:
a that a breach of the rules of natural justice occurred in connection with the making of the decision;
b that procedures that were required by law to be observed in connection with the making of the decision were not observed;
c that the person who purported to make the decision did not have jurisdiction to make the decision;
d that the decision was not authorised by the enactment in pursuance of which it was purported to be made;
e that the making of the decision was an improper exercise of the power conferred by the enactment in pursuance of which it was purported to be made;
f that the decision involved an error of law, whether or not the error appears on the record of the decision;
g that the decision was induced or affected by fraud;
h that there was no evidence or other material to justify the making of the decision;
i that the decision was otherwise contrary to law.
The reference in paragraph (e) to an improper exercise of a power shall be construed as including a reference to:
a taking an irrelevant consideration into account in the exercise of a power;
b failing to take a relevant consideration into account in the exercise of a power;
c an exercise of a power for a purpose other than a purpose for which the power is conferred;
d an exercise of a discretionary power in bad faith;
e an exercise of a personal discretionary power at the direction or behest of another person;
f an exercise of a discretionary power in accordance with a rule or policy without regard to the merits of the particular case;
g an exercise of a power that is so unreasonable that no reasonable person could have so exercised the power;
h an exercise of a power in such a way that the result of the exercise of the power is uncertain;
i any other exercise of a power in a way that constitutes abuse of the power.
The above list is for general reference only and is subject to change. Refer directly to the most current version of the ADJR Act, which can be accessed on the Federal Legislation Register at www.legislation.gov.au.
There may also be other grounds of review available pursuant to statute. For example, in Victoria, the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic) provides for further grounds to add to a judicial review action.
Writs, injunctions and other powers
Traditionally, anyone seeking judicial review had to use the common law procedure of seeking the issue of a “prerogative writ”. A prerogative writ is formally an order from the sovereign (i.e. the King or Queen) to an inferior tribunal or court. The High Court now calls them “constitutional writs” (“writs”). There are many types of writ, but three main types of writ that are important in judicial review: mandamus, prohibition, and certiorari.
1 Mandamus is an order issued by the court against a tribunal, public body or official requiring it to perform a duty that it has failed to perform. For example, an official might be required to consider an application for a licence that it had refused to consider.
2 Prohibition is an order to a tribunal, public body or official requiring it to cease proceedings. An order for prohibition should be sought where proceedings are about to commence or are ongoing, and a body has failed to exercise its jurisdiction properly or failed to provide natural justice.
3 Certiorari is an order setting aside a decision (technically, the record of the decision-maker is removed to the court and the court then quashes the decision and expunges it from the record). An order for certiorari would be sought where a decision has been made unlawfully and the decision should be set aside. Generally, an order for certiorari is sought in combination with an order for mandamus (i.e. an order for certiorari setting aside the decision and an order for mandamus requiring the decision-maker to make the decision again).
In addition to these three writs, other court powers include the power to grant an injunction (preventing or requiring certain action) and a declaration (declaring the legal position in relation to a particular issue).
In 1977, the federal parliament enacted the ADJR Act. The ADJR Act simplified the remedies and procedures applicable to judicial review of federal decisions (see “Review under the federal Administrative Decision (Judicial Review) Act”). Most importantly, it simplified the language of judicial review. If you wish to challenge a federal action under a statute, the ADJR Act is an attractive alternative to seeking one or more of the writs because of the clear and simple procedures that the Act provides. It also provides the applicant with an opportunity to obtain a statement of reasons from the decision-maker before commencing proceedings, a right not previously provided (see “Obtaining a statement of reasons under Commonwealth law”).
The common law procedure for seeking a writ remains relevant because the ADJR Act does not apply to all administrative actions (e.g. decisions made “outside” a statute, and many decisions under the Migration Act 1958 (Cth), are not covered by the ADJR Act). Accordingly, if you wish to challenge a federal matter you need to check carefully whether it is covered by the ADJR Act. If a decision is not covered by the ADJR Act, you may need to apply under the Judiciary Act 1903 (Cth) (“Judiciary Act”) (usually s 39B). Sometimes you will need to do both.
Soon after the enactment of the ADJR Act, the Victorian Parliament enacted the AL Act, which was intended to simplify the procedures for reviewing Victorian decisions (see “Review under the Victorian Administrative Law Act”). In Victoria, a further reform abolished the writs of certiorari, prohibition and mandamus altogether and replaced them with an application for “any relief or remedy in the nature of” certiorari, mandamus or prohibition under order 56 of the Supreme Court (General Civil Procedure) Rules 2015 (Vic) (“SC (GCP) Rules”). (Consequently, the language in the Victorian statutory judicial review scheme is essentially the same as under the common law.)
Although the order 56 procedure still retains the old language of certiorari, mandamus or prohibition, it is now actually in many ways more straightforward than the “simplified” procedure laid down by the AL Act. Under the AL Act you have to prove that the decision-maker had to accord natural justice before the court will have jurisdiction to review their decision (see “Scope of the Administrative Law Act”). Also, the time limit for making an application is 30 days and cannot be extended under the AL Act (while, under order 56, the time limit is 60 days and can be extended in special circumstances).
The usual options, one or more of which may be available to you if you are considering judicial review (apart from any other statutory right of review), are outlined below.
In a federal matter:
• Seek review under the ADJR Act if you are aggrieved by a decision or conduct that falls within the scope of the Act (to determine whether the ADJR Act applies, see “Review under the federal Administrative Decision (Judicial Review) Act”).
• Seek the issue of a writ in the Federal Court under the Judiciary Act (usually s 39B). The is the common legal avenue, which is facilitated by the Judiciary Act. For the court to have jurisdiction, your case must qualify under section 39B. For example, you must be seeking a writ of mandamus or prohibition or an injunction against an officer or officers of the Commonwealth (you can also seek other remedies, such as a writ of certiorari or a declaration). Or there may be a Constitutional or other legislative issue. (Check the Judiciary Act for exact criteria.) If the matter you wish to challenge is not covered by the ADJR Act, or you are unsure whether or not it is covered by the ADJR Act, you should rely on the Judiciary Act as well.
• Seek the issue of a writ in the High Court under section 75 of the Australian Constitution. Again, for the court to have jurisdiction, you must be seeking a writ of mandamus or prohibition or injunction against a Commonwealth officer. As any action brought in the High Court’s original jurisdiction would be likely to be remitted to the Federal Court under section 44(2A) of the Judiciary Act, this avenue may not be recommended. But sometimes the only review available is in the High Court (see s 38 of the Judiciary Act regarding exclusive jurisdiction of the High Court).
In a Victorian matter:
• Seek review under the AL Act if you are aggrieved by a decision that falls within the scope of the Act (to determine whether the AL Act applies, see “Review under the Victorian Administrative Law Act”).
• Seek an order “in the nature of” one of the writs under order 56 of the SC (GCP) Rules; this is a common legal avenue.
Applications for review under the ADJR Act can be commenced in the Federal Court or the Federal Circuit Court. For less complex disputes, the Federal Circuit Court may be preferable. It has the same jurisdiction as the Federal Court under the ADJR Act. It is meant to provide a simpler and more accessible “service” than the Federal Court and may provide a less expensive and quicker resolution of the dispute.
If you are unsure whether or not the ADJR Act applies, you may be able to seek review in the Federal Court and combine an application under the ADJR Act with an application for one or more of the writs under section 39B of the Judiciary Act, just to be on the safe side.
To apply for review under the ADJR Act you must be a “person aggrieved” (defined in s 3(4)) by:
• a decision (s 5);
• a report or recommendation that was made under an enactment before a final decision (s 3(3));
• conduct for the purpose of making a decision (s 6); and/or
• failure to make a decision (s 7).
To be a person aggrieved, you must have an interest in the subject matter that is greater than a member of the public would have. It is not enough that the person feels aggrieved. The test is similar to the common law test of “standing to sue” (see “Judicial review: establishing standing to sue”).
The meaning of “decision” is quite important, as the other categories that are covered by the ADJR Act, such as conduct or a report, all relate back to a decision that is proposed to be made.
The ADJR Act does not define the word “decision”. It does, however, define the expression “decision to which this Act applies” (see s 3(1)) as being a decision that must:
• be administrative in character;
• be made, proposed to be made, or required to be made under an enactment (see s 3(1));
• not be made by the Governor-General (see s 3(1)(c)); and
• not fall within one of the classes of decisions listed in schedule 1 to the ADJR Act, which are exempt from the Act (see s 3(1)(d)). Always check the list of exemptions in schedule 1 for recent updates.
The ADJR Act also defines the expression “the making of a decision”, but this is not an exhaustive list (s 3(2)).
A decision must be an ultimate, final, or operative determination and not a mere preliminary expression of opinion or statement (see Australian Broadcasting Tribunal v Bond  HCA 33).
Conduct concerns procedural matters such as the refusal of an adjournment, calling witnesses, questioning witnesses and issuing subpoenas or the manner in which a hearing is being conducted, in the lead up to a decision that is itself capable of review (see s 3(5)).
Failure to make a decision falls into the area of remedy traditionally known as mandamus. An order can be obtained where a decision-maker is under a duty to make a decision and fails to do so. Section 7 deals with two variations of this situation:
• where no time limit is imposed by the law on the decision-maker, a person can seek judicial review if nothing is done after a reasonable time, on the ground of “unreasonable delay” (s 7(1)); and
• if a period of time for making the decision is specified, the ground is “failure to make the decision within that period” (s 7(2)).
The grounds for review of a decision or conduct are listed in sections 5 and 6 of the ADJR Act (for an extract of section 5, see “Grounds of review: summary”). They are similar (but not identical) to the traditional common law grounds that are outlined below. One key difference is that “error of law” need not be on the face of the record under an ADJR Act review.
The court has very flexible powers as to the orders it can make. It can make an order of review quashing or setting aside the decision under review, referring the matter back to the decision-maker with directions, declaring the rights of the parties, or directing any of the parties to do or refrain from doing whatever the court considers necessary to do justice between the parties (s 16(1) ADJR Act).
Nonetheless, it cannot simply step into the shoes of the decision-maker and remake their decision as the court sees fit, unless there is only one decision that can lawfully be made.
If you wish to challenge a Victorian matter you can consider whether or not to bring proceedings under the AL Act, or whether you may prefer to use the SC (GCP) Rules order 56 procedure to seek an order in the nature of one of the writs.
Section 3 of the AL Act states:
Any person affected by a decision of a tribunal may make application (hereinafter called an application for review) to the Supreme Court for an order calling on the tribunal or the members thereof (hereinafter called an order for review) and also any party interested in maintaining the decision to show cause why the same should not be reviewed.
The three terms crucial to understanding the scope of the AL Act are defined in section 2:
1 “Decision” means a decision operating in law to determine a question affecting the rights of any person or to grant, deny, terminate, suspend or alter a privilege or licence and includes a refusal or failure to perform a duty or to exercise a power to make such a decision.
2 “Person affected” in relation to a decision, means a person, whether or not a party to proceedings, whose interest (being an interest that is greater than the interest of other members of the public) is or will or may be affected, directly or indirectly, to a substantial degree by a decision that has been made or is to be made or ought to have been made by the tribunal.
3 “Tribunal” means a person or body of persons (not being a court of law or a tribunal constituted or presided over by a judge of the Supreme Court, or a Royal Commission) who, in arriving at the decision in question, is or are by law required, whether by express direction or not, to act in a judicial manner to the extent of observing one or more of the rules of natural justice.
These terms are discussed in more detail below.
The above definition of “decision” makes it clear that judicial review under the AL Act is not limited to decisions affecting “rights”. It is sufficient if a “privilege” or “licence” is affected.
See “Application of the ADJR Act”, for a discussion on the requirements to satisfy the definition of a “decision” as per Australian Broadcasting Tribunal v Bond  HCA 33.
Inaction can be treated as a “decision” for the purpose of review.
This definition provides the test to obtain standing to sue under the AL Act. While some of the terms in the definition, such as “to a substantial degree”, appear rather vague, very few problems have arisen in its practical application.
This definition contains the most significant limitation: the requirement that the decision-maker must accord natural justice. First, tribunals presided over by a Supreme Court judge cannot be challenged by the procedure (although an individual may seek review by other means). Second, the procedure can only be used to seek review of persons or bodies who act judicially “to the extent of observing one or more of the rules of natural justice”.
Not all administrative bodies must observe natural justice, or any of its rules, in their operation (although at common law they may still be amenable to review where they exceed their powers). Section 4(3)–(4) of the AL Act also places strict limitations on the circumstances in which the procedure can be successfully invoked against some VCAT decisions.
A person must apply to the Supreme Court for review not later than 30 days after notice of the decision or the giving of reasons, whichever is later. The application must be supported by evidence on affidavit and show a prima facie case for relief (s 4(1)). Even if a prima facie case is shown, the court may refuse the application “if satisfied that no matter of substantial importance is involved or that in all the circumstances such refusal will impose no substantial injustice upon the applicant” (s 4(2)).
This discretion may operate as, virtually, a second limb of the test for standing (see “Judicial review: establishing standing to sue”). Not only must a person be “affected” but they must also be able to show “substantial injustice”.
The court has a discretion to impose terms about costs or security, or a stay of the proceedings or implementation of the decision, pending the hearing (s 6). In making its final order, the court may grant any remedy that could have been given in proceedings for a writ (certiorari, mandamus or prohibition), declaration or injunction (s 7).
If you do want to seek judicial review of a decision, you must be very careful to comply with any time limits. Even where it is possible under the statute to seek an extension of time, it can be difficult to persuade a court to give you an extension, and you will need to show a good reason for your delay in seeking the judicial review.
An application for a review of a Commonwealth decision under the ADJR Act must be submitted within 28 days of receipt of the terms of a decision (s 11(3)). This period can be extended by making a valid request within 28 days of the decision, or by making an application for an extension to the Federal Court or Federal Circuit Court.
There are generally no express time limits on an application made under section 39B of the Judiciary Act (or s 75 Australian Constitution) (although specific legislation may impose time limits). However, the court may dismiss your application if you unreasonably delay seeking judicial review.
In Victoria, an application for review under order 56 of the SC (GCP) Rules must be commenced within 60 days after the date that grounds for the grant of the relief or remedy claimed arose (r 56.02(1)). This time limit may only be extended in “special circumstances” (r 56.02(3)).
Under the AL Act, a person must apply to the Supreme Court for review no later than 30 days after notice of the decision or the giving of reasons, whichever is later (s 4(1)). The time cannot be extended.
If you wish to seek judicial review under a statutory procedure (e.g. the ADJR Act or AL Act), or under common law, you may need to establish that you have “standing to sue” (although there is an argument that if you are seeking one of the writs for jurisdictional error the standing requirements do not apply).
Depending on the relevant legislation and the remedies sought, standing may be accorded to “a person aggrieved”, “any person affected” or even “any person”. If you are directly affected by a decision because you are the subject of it, then you will generally have standing to sue. Standing is more of an issue if you are a “bystander” or a community group with some sort of broad interest in the decision-making process (such as an environmental protection group).
Where standing to sue cannot be established, representatives of the group may request the appropriate Attorney-General to initiate proceedings on their behalf. This request is known as an application for a fiat. For example, the Commonwealth Attorney-General gave a fiat to the Australian Episcopal Conference of the Roman Catholic Church to bring an application for judicial review against a Federal Court decision that ruled that state legislation refusing single women access to IVF treatment was inconsistent with the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) (see Re McBain; Ex parte Australian Catholic Bishops Conference  HCA 16). The Attorney-General will not necessarily grant this fiat and it is very unusual for cases to involve a fiat.
As judicial review is not review on the merits, the grounds for review are limited to particular recognised grounds. It is useful to rely on the ADJR Act’s grounds for a summary (s 5). These grounds essentially describe the way in which a decision-maker has stepped outside the boundary of lawfulness (see also “Judicial review vs merits review explained”). If you are seeking judicial review under the ADJR Act, you need to refer to the specific grounds listed in sections 5 and 6 of the ADJR Act (see also “Grounds of review: summary”).
The question of whether an authority has jurisdiction to make a decision or perform an action is of particular importance in judicial review. The power of an authority or a decision-maker is usually confined to a strictly defined area by its governing statute, because it is parliament (through the statute) that gives them that power.
The question of whether or not a ground of review constitutes a “jurisdictional error” can have particular significance if the Act under which the decision was made contains a “privative clause” that attempts to exclude judicial review. The High Court has held that privative clauses are not always effective to exclude judicial review for jurisdictional errors.
Generally, most errors of an administrative tribunal will be jurisdictional if they are of any substance. There is case law on this (see Administrative Power and the Law; details are in “More information”).
Error of law is a common judicial review ground. It occurs when the decision-maker has misunderstood or misapplied a statute, for example, by applying the wrong criteria, or asking the wrong question. In practice this often occurs because the decision-maker has failed to read or understand the statute. In addition, where a policy exists, decision-makers can fail to realise its limitations, sometimes incorrectly believing that the policy empowers them, rather than the law.
It should be noted that sometimes “error of law” is used in administrative law as an umbrella term to refer to any judicially reviewable error (e.g. improper purpose, breach of the no bias rule, etc.). However, when the term is used as a particular ground of review, it is referring to an error in the interpretation or construction of the law.
A court will interfere with an administrative decision or question if it can be shown to amount to an improper exercise of power. There is a large amount of case law on the various grounds for such an attack.
Following is a summary of these grounds. If you think one of these grounds may be available you should investigate the applicable law further.
If it can be shown that a government body has failed to take into account relevant factors or has taken into account factors not relevant to the matter, the court can intervene. In order to decide what is relevant, the reasons given for the decision or action must be assessed against the governing Act. In other words, the Act will often determine the relevant and irrelevant factors.
A relevant consideration is one that the court would say must be taken into account. An irrelevant consideration is one that must not be taken into account (see Minister for Aboriginal Affairs v Peko-Wallsend Ltd  HCA 40 and Minister for Immigration & Multicultural Affairs v Yusuf  HCA 30).
A decision or action, though on its face proper under the law, may be designed to achieve a purpose that is beyond the responsibilities of the government body. For example, an Act may permit a local council to close off a street for road repairs. On the face of it, the council may decide to do this, but it might be that the real object of the closure was to create a permanent traffic-free area in the city. This ground will only succeed if it is proved that the government body would not have acted as it did but for the improper purpose. However, it is usually difficult to prove that a decision-maker acted out of an improper purpose.
Another ground of judicial review is that an action or decision was so unreasonable that no reasonable body would have reached it. This is often called “manifest unreasonableness”, or “Wednesbury unreasonableness” (after an old English case: Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd v Wednesbury Corporation  1 KB 223). This is a difficult ground; it is not enough to convince the judge that they would have made the decision differently, it must be shown that the decision was an absurd or irrational one. A decision-maker may have acted unreasonably because highly significant factors were not given proper weight or because their opinion could not have been reasonably formed on the information available (Re Minister for Immigration & Multicultural Affairs; Ex parte Eshetu  HCA 21). This ground of review has given rise to a number of recent cases, but the general principle remains that usually this ground is a last resort. If it is clear that the decision-maker erred, it would usually be evident as another ground of review, for example, as an error of law or failure to take account of a relevant consideration.
Another ground of attack on administrative actions that appear on their face to be proper is that of “bad faith”. Here, it is necessary to show the decision was affected by corruption, bribery, dishonesty or similar malpractice. The great difficulty, of course, is to obtain evidence to prove what is considered by the courts to be a very grave allegation against the conduct of government.
A ground that is rarely available for attacking an administrative action is that it was too uncertain to be meaningful (see King Gee Clothing Co Pty Ltd v Commonwealth  HCA 23). This is really a question of how vaguely the administration expressed its decision: is the decision so vague that it gives no guidance for people to act on it?
The usual cases where improper delegation has been made out are those where a body responsible for a decision decided to let its judgment be formed by a body over which it had no control. For example, it may be improper delegation if the secretary of a department left a matter for which they were responsible to an independent agency to decide. If guidelines had been laid down, however, and the secretary had only treated the independent agency’s views as recommendatory, there may be no ground for judicial review.
A process may be declared legally improper because the decision-maker has divested responsibility or acted under dictation. “Divesting” happens where a decision-maker simply gives away authority in a matter. For instance, for a Comptroller-General of Customs to declare that in future all determinations about prohibited imports would be made by a drug foundation, would be an improper divesting of responsibilities.
The reverse of this situation is “dictation”. Here, the body responsible for making a decision allows itself to be dictated to by some other entity in the community, normally a person superior in status to that body. A famous case where dictation was successfully shown involved the actions of the Director-General of Civil Aviation in 1965. He refused import permits sought by a company wishing to enter the aviation business, on the basis of a ministerial directive.
Finally, if an administrative body applies predetermined guidelines or policy criteria without regard to the merits of the specific situation, a ground for review may exist. This error is common in practice. However, it is not always easy to identify, and it is often easier to articulate the error as an error of law or some other error. This is because reliance on the policy will usually lead to misinterpreting the law. Reliance on policy can also result in a failure on the part of the decision-maker to exercise their discretion. A decision-making body that is required to consider each case on its individual merits must not simply apply rigid policy guidelines in place of its discretion.
One way to convince a court that a case has not been given any (however fleeting) special attention is to demonstrate that no case of the kind in issue has been successful over a long period of time. In one English case, it was necessary to show that no case of the kind in issue had been decided in favour of an applicant for a period of three years, though in theory a favourable decision could have been made at any time in that period. Finding evidence along these lines might not be easy.
As mentioned in “Nature of judicial review”, judicial review is used to challenge the legality of an administrative decision (i.e. whether it was within the power or jurisdiction of the decision-maker to make that decision in the way they did). This means that, generally, errors of fact are not reviewable by courts conducting judicial review. If courts reviewed errors of fact, then they would be engaging in merits review instead of judicial review (see “Judicial review vs merits review explained”).
The exception to this rule is for “jurisdictional facts”. A jurisdictional fact is an objective fact (or an essential pre-condition) that must exist before the decision-maker’s power or jurisdiction is activated. If the decision-maker fails to recognise the existence of a jurisdictional fact, or mistakenly thinks that the fact exists, and proceeds to exercise power, then this may be reviewable by a court. This is because their power may have been mistakenly activated.
The example given in Administrative Power and the Law (pp. 129–130; see “More information”) is if a decision-maker can cancel salmon fishing licences when a licence holder exceeds their salmon fishing quota. Let’s say a licence holder catches a lobster, but the decision-maker attributes the additional weight to excess salmon and cancels the licence due to the fishing quota being exceeded. This may be a jurisdictional error of fact because the decision-maker misunderstood the facts (by thinking the licence holder had caught excess salmon), but proceeded to exercise power anyway (by cancelling the licence).
In challenging an administrator’s decision or action, a citizen can say that the administrative body or official did not follow proper procedures in reaching its conclusion.
Anyone who wishes to attack an administrative decision should look at the Act permitting that decision to see what procedures were required. Ask the following questions.
1 What official or body was required to take the action? Did they? For example, were they required to sign any letter or order?
2 Were they required to give people a hearing before reaching its conclusion? Did they?
3 Were they required to place advertisements in local newspapers or give some other type of notice to, for example, the local community before taking action? Did they?
4 Were any time periods built into the process as to, for example, the period of public notice; period of receipt of objections; period for appeal against the decision before any action under the decision could be taken? Were these complied with?
5 Were they required to consult with any outside bodies or individuals before reaching their decision? Did they?
These are examples of possible questions. If there has been any irregularity in following the terms of the Act, you may have a basis for obtaining judicial review of that decision. (Note that some of the above questions may also indicate that a breach of natural justice had occurred.)
There are two key components to “natural justice”:
1 being given a reasonable opportunity to be heard (the “fair hearing rule”); and
2 having a decision made by a decision-maker who is free from actual bias or the appearance of bias (the “no bias rule”).
The principles of natural justice (otherwise described as “procedural fairness”), apply at first glance to all administrative decision-making situations. However, they only bind administrative bodies where a judgment is being made that may interfere with an individual’s interest. They do not apply when general policy, for example, is being determined.
The courts sometimes interpret the notion of interest so as to include “legitimate expectations”. An individual may have a legitimate expectation where they satisfy express statutory criteria, or where an assurance has been given or where a regular course of conduct has been followed. The High Court decided that the ratification by Australia of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) could serve as the basis of a legitimate expectation that decision-makers would act in conformity with the Convention (Minister for Immigration & Ethnic Affairs v Teoh  HCA 20 (“Teoh Case”)). However, the High Court in Re Minister for Immigration & Multicultural Affairs; Ex parte Lam  HCA 6 doubted the reach of the Teoh Case (above) and focused on concepts such as real unfairness. Generally, while legitimate expectation grounds can be embedded in natural justice grounds (in the sense that a person may have an entitlement to natural justice), legitimate expectation grounds should be treated with care.
If a situation is one in which natural justice should be given, the next question is what procedures should have been followed so as to accord natural justice. Legislative procedures may overlap with common law obligations of natural justice. To start with, read the Act governing the body or official responsible for the decision. Public authorities making statutory decisions are often governed by a strict procedure laid down by an Act. These Acts usually address questions such as:
1 How much notice must be given of a hearing before the authority holds the hearing?
2 Can a person appearing before the authority have legal representation?
3 How many persons must sit on the authority?
4 Are the proceedings governed by strict rules about the presentation of evidence?
5 Is a party entitled to cross-examine?
The common law rules of natural justice will usually supplement statutory procedures for a fair process. Where nothing is said in the Act, the presumption is that a person with an interest in the decision will be given an opportunity to be heard before an adverse decision is made, regardless of what statutory hearing procedures might also exist.
Natural justice arguments that most often lead to a finding in the citizen’s favour involve failure to give:
• adequate notice of a hearing;
• a person a sufficient opportunity to present a case;
• a person notice of something that is unknown or “not obvious” to them.
(See Administrative Power & the Law (publication details in “More information”) for further discussion on this topic.)
The natural justice rule is that the proceedings should be free from “actual” bias or “apprehended” bias. Actual bias is more difficult to prove, as it requires showing that the decision-maker has in fact closed their mind and is unable to consider the matter impartially. Apprehended bias is easier to establish as it involves demonstrating the appearance of bias.
Under the common law, the general standard used by the courts is to ask whether a reasonable person would have held that the decision made by the body was not free from bias. A lot depends on the status of the tribunal, the significance of the decision-making body and the extent of the evidence of bias.
It is easiest to show bias where a decision-maker has a direct pecuniary interest in the outcome of a matter, for example, where the decision-maker is a major shareholder of a company that will be affected by the decision. However, simply holding shares in a company affected by the decision may not be sufficient if, for example, the shares are in a large publicly listed company and the decision is unlikely to affect the share price (see Clenae Pty Ltd v Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd  VSCA 35).
There are other situations where a person may be biased. The person may be a relative of one of the parties, or have had a past professional association with one of the parties, or in the past expressed hostility to views being put by one of the parties. There are no easy answers as to whether these situations will be sufficient to amount to bias. It is often a question of degree.
The Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic) (“Charter Act”) imposes an obligation on all Victorian public authorities (e.g. governments, local councils) to act in a way that is compatible with human rights, and to give proper consideration to relevant human rights when making decisions (s 38). These human rights include the right to recognition and equality before the law, the right to privacy, the right to freedom of religion and expression, the right to protection of families and children, the right to liberty and security of the person, and the right to a fair hearing.
However, the Charter Act does not create an independent right to begin legal action for a breach of human rights. What it does is allow you to seek a review of a public authority’s decision or act on the grounds that the decision or act is unlawful under the Charter Act alongside an existing application for judicial review (s 39). This means that courts conducting judicial review can consider a human rights breach under the Charter Act if it is accompanied by a ground of judicial review. For example, you may make an application for judicial review on the basis of a breach of procedural fairness and combine this ground with a breach of the right to a fair hearing under the Charter Act.
Note that the Charter Act only operates in Victoria, so it only applies to decisions made and acts of Victorian public authorities.
For more information about the Charter Act, see Discrimination and human rights.