High Court battles prolix lawyers with new typographic rules

For many years, the High Court has had rules about formatting documents in Rule 1.08.01, including requirements that documents are printed single-sided A4 paper, with 2.5cm margins. The High Court Registry is notoriously strict in applying these rules.

Commencing on 1 July 2016, the High Court introduced new rules for special leave applications — including a tight limit on the length of the documents filed. Under the new Rule 41.01.3, “An application: (a) must not exceed 12 pages; and (b) must be typed in at least 12 point (Times New Roman or equivalent font size) with line spacing of 1.5 lines.”

Matthew Butterick is the author of Typography for Lawyers, a book explaining the principles of presenting attractive and legible text in legal contexts. He explains why these court rules exist: “Con­sis­tency of typog­ra­phy in court fil­ings helps ensure fair­ness to the par­ties. For instance, in juris­dic­tions that use page lim­its, if law­yer A sets his briefs at 12 point and law­yer B sets hers at 10 point, then law­yer B will get more words per page. Court rules about typog­ra­phy pre­vent abuse of these lim­its.”

However, he notes that “courts often require text to be set at 12 point—and some­times larger”, but that this does not guarantee uniformity because “the point-size sys­tem is not absolute—dif­fer­ent fonts set at the same point size won’t nec­es­sar­ily appear the same on the page”.

Perhaps Australian lawyers have been reading Broderick’s work. Richard Ackland reports that “some briefs have discovered a font that looks like 12 point, but in reality is closer to 10, which allows more words and argumentation to be crammed into the 12 pages at the required line spacing of 1.5.  This is why innovative thinkers at the bar are paid big bucks.”

This tension between lawyers and judges over the length of documents has a long history. In 1596, the UK Court of Chancery complained about a solicitor who filed documents “amount[ing] to six score sheets of paper [ie, 120 pages], and yet all the matter thereof which is pertinent might have been well contrived in sixteen sheets of paper”. As a punishment, they ordered that a hole be cut in the bundle of papers so that it could be worn around the lawyer’s neck while he was paraded “bare headed and bare faced, round about Westminster Hall, whilst the Courts are sitting, and [shown] at the bar of every of the three Courts within the Hall” — in addition to paying a fine and the defendant’s costs.

We are yet to see how the High Court will respond to counsel who adopt creative interpretations of Rule 41.01.3.

Annual debate about law graduate career prospects begins

As students begin their course selections for next year, the debate over the employment prospects of law graduates has resurfaced. With 19 universities opening new law schools over the last twenty-five years, the question of whether there are too many graduates for the available jobs has been an ongoing issue.

This year’s round of the debate was opened by Frank Carrigan, a senior lecturer at Macquarie University, who complained that “Law student numbers are out of hand”, and it is leading to an oversupply of graduates who can’t find work. “Thousands of students are undertaking a degree that will result in broken dreams.”

In a column for the Australian Financial Review, he wrote: “Nearly 15,000 finish their degree each year, and enter a market where there are only 66,000 solicitors. These graduate numbers far transcend the growth in the legal market. … Law deans are running a bait and switch operation. They hold out the promise of a legal career, while adding to the unemployment queue.”

Responding in the same newspaper, the Dean of the University of Melbourne Law School, Professor Carolyn Evans, rejected this criticism. She cited statistics from Graduate Careers Australia to argue that law graduates have strong prospects for employment and higher wages than many other fields:

  • “around 74 per cent of those who graduated from law school four months earlier and were available for employment were in fact employed. The national average for graduate employment is a bit under 69 per cent”;
  • “those with Bachelors degrees in Maths had an employment rate of 62 per cent, chemistry graduates a rate of 50 per cent and physics graduates a rate of 54 per cent”; and
  • “the average starting salary for law graduates is above the average salary for graduates of all degrees and in the top ten degrees by salary for recent graduates.”

However, it is important to note that many of these graduates are not working in the legal profession. Professor Evans says she speaks to graduates whose careers are “in business, the arts, policy, diplomacy and consultancy” — but she says the skills offered by a law degree made these careers possible.

The Legal Nomads website regularly publishes profiles of law graduates working in very diverse fields, from journalism and tax advice to curry evangelism and LEGO art. Universities are supporting this flexibility by offering double degrees in unusal combinations such as Law and Creative Writing.

Even within the legal profession, career opportunities and pathways are changing. The AFR reports that relatively young “millennial” lawyers are developing niche expertise and opening their own legal practices.

New VCAT fee structure adds Corporate and Concession rates

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) was established as a low-cost alternative to the courts for resolving civil disputes, but in recent years its fee increases have been criticised for undermining that mission. In 2013, fees for consumer cases increased from $39 to $132 and the number of applications fell by 15 per cent. Gerard Brody of the Consumer Law Action Centre said, “If the claim is less than a couple of thousand dollars then you might think the fee, together with the time involved with having to go to VCAT, is not worth the effort.”

The Andrews Government conducted a review of the tribunal’s fee structure to ensure its resources were allocated as effectively as possible, taking into account the applicant’s capacity to pay. The result is a new system providing for Concession, Standard and Corporate fee rates, which commenced on 1 July 2016.

At the higher end of the scale, a new Corporate fee rate has been established, which applies to government agencies and companies with a turnover in excess of $200,000 per year. The Victorian Government highlighted that “the corporate fee to challenge the refusal of a planning permit for a development with a value of between $15 million and $50 million will increase from $2,086 to $2,328, while the concession fee to challenge the grant of such a permit will now be $150.”

The Standard rate (for individuals and small businesses) is fixed at 70 per cent of the Corporate rate. For most residential tenancy matters, the Standard fee is $61.50, and there is no fee for bond disputes. The new fee structure also includes a sliding scale based on the value of the claim; for goods and services, the Standard fee ranges from $61.50 for a claim under $3000, to $1571 for a claim over $5 million.

In order to address access to justice for those least able to pay, a new Concession rate of fees has been established. Holders of a federal Health Care Card will be eligible for this category, with no application fee for residential tenancy disputes, or for goods and services claims worth up to $15,000. They will also benefit from a cap of $150 on any fee they are required to pay. The option of applying for a fee waiver in exceptional circumstances will remain.

The review process included public consultation, and the Government appears to have taken into account some of the specific suggestions made by lobby groups on behalf of low-income claimants. For example, both the Victorian Council of Social Services and the Consumer Action Law Centre argued that $10,000 was too low a threshold for small claims — the new fee structure removes application and daily hearing fees for Concession holders for claims up to $15,000. However, their proposals that there should be no fee for claims up to $100,000 (VCOSS) or for any claim regardless of value (CALC) were not accepted.

Corrections Victoria fails to bring prisoners to court

Victorian courts have sharply criticised Corrections Victoria for its failure to bring prisoners to court for hearings, but the agency continues to breach the rights of those in its custody.

The Herald Sun reported that Corrections Victoria has been fined 650 times since 2013 — with the total penalties approaching $500,000 — for holding people in custody rather than bringing them to their scheduled court appearances, including over $110,000 in fines in the first half of 2016.

Victoria Legal Aid said that 455 Magistrates’ Court matters were affected in the first seven weeks of 2016, with some prisoners being unable to apply for bail or missing assessments for community-based sentences.

In March, a magistrate told The Age in some cases it was more likely an accused person would attend court if they were released than if they remained in custody. “I’m releasing people — not high-risk — but I’m releasing them on bail because I can’t guarantee they’ll appear.”

The problem had not been resolved by August. After being told that a number of prisoners could not apply for bail as they had not been brought to court, Magistrate Timothy Walsh warned Corrections officers, “They can be brought in or they’ll be released on bail.”

The Victorian Government has been aware of the problem since 2014, when the Auditor-General reviewed the prisoner transport system and reported: “Increasing prisoner numbers within the justice system means that prisoners are not always transported when and where required.”

The Government has announced $14.7 million in funding to improve video link facilities at 53 courts, which it hopes will reduce congestion in the prisoner transport system. This investment supports the Justice Legislation (Evidence and Other Acts) Amendment Act 2016, which requires that most Magistrates’ Court hearings involving remand prisoners should be conducted by video link.

Section 21 of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities requires that people must not be subjected to arbitrary detention, and that deprivation of their liberty must only be in accordance with procedures established by law.

Police Minister steps down, highlighting vicarious trauma

Victorian Police and Corrections Minister Wade Noonan has stepped down from his role for three months. He said he needs a break from the job because of the psychological impact it has had on him. He explained, “It has been difficult to cope with the constant exposure to details of unspeakable crimes and traumatic events that are an everyday part of my role and the accumulation of these experiences has taken an unexpected toll.”

The issue of the exposure of people involved in the legal process to gruesome details of crimes has also been raised recently as a result of the sentencing of Matthew Graham, a 22-year-old Melbourne man who was responsible for websites sharing photos and video of the sexual abuse, torture and killing of children.

The prosecutor asked the County Court judge to view some of the worst videos: “It is with a great deal of regret that I urge your honour to view the material. Seeing it brings it home in a much more realistic and tangible way. It is probably one of the worst things you could see.” In April last year, the County Court recognised the psychological harm caused to judges and court staff who are required to observe traumatic evidence, and engaged five psychologists and psychiatrists to build judicial resilience.

Other participants in the system can also be affected. For instance, the Victorian Juries Commissioner recognises the potential for vicarious trauma, and after the trial jurors can access psychological services. Adrian Lowe, who spent four years reporting on crimes for The Age, said he asked to be assigned to different duties because he was being affected by the work, but that he still suffers the consequences: “It has been almost four years since I left the court round. The nightmares, flashbacks and visions have continued, fortunately with less frequency as the years pass.”

The issue can have an impact on the effectiveness and fairness of the legal system. In January, the ABC’s Law Report looked at how interpreters are affected by translating the details of evidence. A survey of 271 qualified interpreters found that “a quarter of respondents … said that they continued to feel traumatised for some period after and that they would choose to avoid those types of assignment in the future”. This can mean that it is hard to find appropriately qualified interpreters to deal with traumatic cases.

Interpreters in the Justice System — ABC Law Report

TURC criticism prompts new Supreme Court list

The Supreme Court of Victoria has established a specialist Employment and Industrial List, which commenced on 1 January 2016. The list will manage proceedings involving employment contracts, breaches of confidence, and employment-related misleading and deceptive conduct.

It will also deal with allegations of “interference with contractual relations, industrial torts, secondary boycotts, and related contempt proceedings”. These are claims typically directed against industrial action taken by workers and their trade unions.

The establishment of the list comes after criticism by former High Court judge Dyson Heydon in the interim report of his Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, known as TURC. (This controversial inquisitorial body was criticised for political bias after Heydon agreed to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser, but he cleared himself of wrongdoing and continued its hearings.)

Heydon claimed “extraordinary delay” in the Supreme Court’s hearing of industrial torts and related matters “will make the Australian legal system a laughing stock” and called for “consideration to be given to procedures which ensure swift determination of contempt applications”.

These comments were made in relation to a case study of a long-running and high-profile dispute between construction company Grocon and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) over the appointment of safety representatives. This dispute culminated in a massive protest outside the Myer Emporium construction site, and led to Grocon suing the CFMEU over industrial torts, secondary boycotts, and related contempts.

Grocon was represented in the Supreme Court by Michael McDonald SC. He was subsequently appointed to the Supreme Court Trial Division, and is the inaugural Judge in Charge of the Industrial and Employment List.

Medicinal cannabis to be legalised for epileptic children

The Victorian Law Reform Commission has delivered its report on the legalisation of Medicinal Cannabis. In October, the report was tabled in Parliament by Attorney-General Martin Pakula. In December, the Government introduced the Access to Medicinal Cannabis Bill 2015 into parliament, with the intention of having the scheme in place by “early 2017”.

The proposed legislation would allow cannabis to be prescribed to “eligible patients”, which would initially be limited to people under the age of 18 who have epileptic seizures that do not respond to other treatments. This is narrower than the VLRC’s recommendations, which also included patients suffering from severe symptoms of multiple sclerosis, cancer, HIV and AIDS. However, the bill would establish an Independent Medical Advisory Committee to recommend other categories of eligible patient, which could be added by regulation.

Fulfilling an election promise, the Andrews Government asked the VLRC to investigate the best way to implement the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes. In the issues paper that began the public consultation process, the VLRC noted that the decision to legalise the drug had already been made, and the “terms of reference do not invite the Commission’s views on [the merits of] this policy”.

The VLRC received 98 submissions from lawyers, doctors, academicsactivists, community groups, and members of the general public — including one from the possibly pseudonymous Leaf van Amsterdam, who volunteered to be “a willing guinea pig” on the effects of medical marijuana.

The second reading debate on the bill will continue in the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday, 9 February.

Welcome back for 2016

Welcome to another exciting year of Legal Studies!

One of the most interesting things about the VCE Legal Studies course is the way it engages with current issues and controversies. This blog will help you identify issues and reforms that are relevant to the course, give you a brief summary, and link to news and commentary for further detail.

The best way to keep up to date is to subscribe to the email list, which will send you a copy of any new posts. You can also follow the blog on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr.

I also try to categorise the posts according to how they fit in to the Study Design. On the right-hand-side of the site you can see the list of categories, and clicking on those will take you to all of the posts related to that topic.

All the best with your studies this year!

High Court rules donation bans, caps compatible with free speech

The High Court last week made an important decision on the implied constitutional freedom of political communication. Jeff McCloy, a property developer, challenged the validity of NSW restrictions on political donations. The High Court’s ruling was important because it upheld the laws, clarified the test to be applied in “implied freedoms” cases, and confirmed that equality of participation in democracy was a “grand underlying principle” of the Constitution.

In its 2013 Unions NSW v New South Wales decision, the High Court ruled that a ban on all non-voters making political donations was an impermissible restriction of the implied freedom of political communication. While the government claimed it was aimed at eliminating corruption, the Court held there was no clear link between the challenged provisions and that purpose, and therefore the law failed the Lange test.

This prompted McCloy to challenge provisions in the Election Funding, Expenditure and Disclosures Act 1981 (NSW), which bans property developers from making political donations. Applying the logic of the precedent, he argued there was no reason to believe property developers were more likely to make corrupt donations than other people, therefore there was no rational connection to anti-corruption purposes.

However, a majority of the Court firmly rejected this argument, finding that “Property developers are sufficiently distinct to warrant specific regulation”, referring to “recent history” in NSW including a number of reports by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). The law was therefore appropriately adapted to the legitimate purpose of preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption.

(The Court’s reliance on ICAC was interesting because the plaintiff’s illegal donations to Liberal Party MPs were uncovered through an ICAC investigation. In his testimony, McCloy said, “They all come to see me for money, I feel like a walking ATM, some days.”)

The Unions NSW case also struck down a combined cap on election spending by political parties and any affiliated industrial organisations. Although the law did not specify any particular target, the plaintiffs pointed out the Labor Party had maintained affiliation with trade unions for more than a century. Hayne J expressed concern this may have been the true target of the law, asking the NSW Government’s counsel, “Is there any other party to which 95G(6) presently has application? … Are we to ignore 100 years of history in this country, Mr Kirk? Are we to shut our eyes to what has been observed over the last decades?” The Court again held there was no rational link to an anti-corruption purpose, so the combined spending cap was unconstitutional.

McCloy sought to expand on this precedent, taking aim at the Act’s general cap on political donations. He argued “that the ability to pay money to secure access to a politician is itself an aspect of the freedom and therefore the subject of constitutional protection”. The High Court majority emphatically rejected this argument, holding that donation caps “are not only compatible with the system of representative government; they preserve and enhance it.”

They noted that in the absence of limits on donations, wealthy citizens may have a greater influence over our political system than others. The majority explicitly held that “Equality of opportunity to participate in the exercise of political sovereignty is an aspect of the representative democracy guaranteed by our Constitution.” Professor Graeme Orr argues this is the most significant aspect of the decision, because it balances the competing values of liberty and equality.

Another significant aspect of the decision was the Court’s attempt to clarify the second limb of the Lange test, which requires that a law is “appropriately adapted” to achieve its purpose. However, over a series of cases there was disagreement about how to judge this, and in particular whether this was a test of “proportionality”. In August this year, Sir Anthony Mason (who was Chief Justice from 1987-1995) gave a speech on Proportionality and its Use in Australian Constitutional Law, in which he identified three competing versions of the concept emerging from past High Court precedents.

In McCloy, the High Court majority confirmed that “proportionality analysis of some kind is part of the Lange test”, and clarified what this meant in the Australian context. They said it did not simply “involv[e] matters of impression, such as whether the legislative measures go too far, or not far enough”. Specifically, “there are at least three stages to a test of proportionality. … [T]hey are whether the statute is suitable, necessary, and adequate in its balance.” That final stage requires the Court to consider whether the burden on an implied Constitutional right outweighs the benefit of the law.

Critics of “judicial activism” argue that this allows unelected judges to interfere with the power of the Parliament to determine priorities and legislate accordingly. However, the High Court majority explicitly rejects this criticism: “The fact that a value judgment is involved does not entitle the courts to substitute their own assessment for that of the legislative decision-maker. … However, the courts have a duty to determine the limit of legislative power affecting constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, and assessments by courts of the public interest and benefit in a piece of legislation are commonplace. … To say that the courts are able to discern public benefits in legislation which has been passed is not to intrude upon the legislative function.”

Professor Anne Twomey suggests the decision may prompt legal change in jurisdictions around Australia:  “the High Court has opened the way for more comprehensive reform of political donations at the state and federal level. The excuse that it ‘might be unconstitutional’ no longer has legs.”

Northern Territory to resume push for Statehood

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) “supported the Northern Territory Chief Minister’s resolve for the NT to become Australia’s seventh state by 1 July 2018,” which would be the 40th anniversary of self-government in the NT.

Section 121 of the Constitution allows the Commonwealth Parliament to establish new States. It can impose conditions on the new State, including setting different rules for its representation in the Commonwealth Parliament. Given that the NT’s current population is under 250,000, this would likely be necessary. While Tasmania is over-represented compared to its population, the minimum of 5 lower-house seats required by section 24 only applies to Original States.

In 1998, a referendum was held within the Northern Territory. However, it achieved only 48.1% support, largely because the NT’s significant Indigenous population was concerned about the possible impact on their land rights without the protection of the Senate’s review functions. The NT has a unicameral parliament.

Professor Rolf Gerritson of Charles Darwin University said the same issue was likely to be a sticking point in the new campaign: “I don’t think the proposal has a snowball’s chance in hell of getting up. … I expect the land councils would oppose the repatriation of the Land Rights Act. They have in the past. I think that would be a huge stumbling block in negotiations for statehood.” However, his colleague Ken Parish proposes overcoming this obstacle by establishing an Indigenous advisory body that would have the power of veto over amendments to land rights legislation.

This would need to be included in a new constitution for the NT. At present, its legislative, judicial and executive powers are delegated by the Commonwealth under the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978 (Cth), but this is not truly a Constitution as it can be amended by an ordinary bill in the Commonwealth Parliament — as it was in 1997 to remove the NT’s power over euthanasia laws. The NT will hold a Constitutional Convention system to consult with the public over the development of a new constitution.

COAG was established in 1992 to allow for intergovernmental discussions about issues of national importance. Its members are the Prime Minister, State and Territory Premiers and Chief Ministers and the President of the Australian Local Government Association.