The High Court of Australia and the Doctrine of Precedent
The doctrine of precedent is a basic restraint in the Australian justice and judicial decision-making system. The basic idea, according to this law is that the judges, while making decisions must consider and respect the decisions that have been made by the earlier judges or that have been taken by the court earlier. It, sometimes, mean that the judges have to apply the same reasoning in deciding a case that has been applied by the past judges and reach a similar conclusion to them. Thus, this law serves as a moral value of the justice system being consistent and predictable in order to ensure the citizens have faith in the justice system and can take up their rights and duties in accordance to it.
There are have been many questions that arose because of the doctrine of precedent in the Australian justice system. Two of the questions that are most commonly raised are given below.
- Are there instances when the court went against or unsymmetrical to its past decisions?
- What is the meaning and application of the Doctrine of precedent for the state and territory courts of appeal?
Let’s discuss the answer to these questions in detail below.
Are there instances when the court went against or unsymmetrical to its past decisions?
The first case is of Imbree v McNeilly (2008), where high court has to judge upon a case arising out of an accident by a driver who was in the learning stage of the driving, and where one of the passengers was injured in the accident. According to the law, a driver is responsible for the care of his or her passengers and here, the court had to decide whether the learning driver owns similar responsibilities to his or her passengers.
It was expected that the court will rule against the driver as it has done in its past decision in Cook v Cook case. But the court decided to go against the earlier decisions and it was both strange and controversial. It was maintained in the Melbourne University Law Review that the way in which the court went against the reasoning and decision of the past is not upkeeping with the Doctrine of precedent and more vivid and transparent structure required to be built to make changes or go against the earlier ruled decisions.
What is the meaning and application of the Doctrine of precedent for the state and territory courts of appeal?
In the case of Farah Constructions Pty Ltd v Say-Dee Pty Ltd, that was presented before the high court more recently, the question of meaning and application of the Doctrine of precedent for the state and territory courts of appeal popped up.
It is important to understand here that Australian courts follow a hierarchal system where high court is on the top of the pyramid above the lower state courts and other courts of appeal of territories. Before the case decision of Farah Constructions Pty Ltd, it was understood that the lower courts would have to follow only the reasoning part of a decision made in the similar case by the high court in accordance with the doctrine of precedent. Another thing that was understood before this case was the judges is each territory or state were not bound to make decisions in accordance with the decisions taken by the other courts of the state or territories. Each state or province had its own judge-made laws and these might differ from state to state or province to province.
In the case of Farah Construction Pty Ltd, the obiter dicta were mandated to followed seriously by the other courts of the decisions made by the high court. Another thing that changed was the following of doctrine of precedent in any decision made by one court of any territory by any other state of territory court. This means, there has been a serious hindrance in the judge made law in Australia, and for this, the reasoning made in Farah Construction case was heavily criticised for not getting the doctrine of precedent correctly. This case had a serious impact in the justice system of Australia and gave the high court more powers in the judicial decision making for its reasoning and ruling has to be followed by the lower courts and they have to act according to the general guidance provided by the high court of Australia.