A common law principle

20.9     As noted in Chapter 18, the common law has long regarded a person’s property rights as fundamental, and ‘property rights’ was one of the four areas identified as of concern in the national consultation on ‘Rights and Responsibilities’, conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2014.[5]

20.10  With respect to the right to exclude others from enjoyment of land, Entick v Carrington concerned trespass in order to undertake a search—an interference with real property in the possession of another.[6] Rights such as those protected by the tort of trespass to land have long been exercisable even against the Crown or government officers acting outside their lawful authority.

20.11  A consequence of the principle in Entick v Carrington was stated by Bingham MR in R v Somerset County Council; Ex parte Fewings:

In seeking to answer that question it is, as the judge very clearly explained, critical to distinguish between the legal position of the private landowner and that of a land-owning local authority … To the famous question asked by the owner of the vineyard: ‘Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?’ … the modern answer would be clear: ‘Yes, subject to such regulatory and other constraints as the law imposes’. But if the same question were posed by a local authority the answer would be different. It would be: ‘No, it is not lawful for you to do anything save what the law expressly or impliedly authorises. You enjoy no unfettered discretions. There are legal limits to every power you have’. As Laws J put it, the rule for local authorities is that any action to be taken must be justified by positive law … [7]

20.12  In Plenty v Dillon, Mason CJ, Brennan and Toohey JJ said that the principle in Entick v Carrington ‘applies to entry by persons purporting to act with the authority of the Crown as well as to entry by other persons’.[8]

20.13  Similarly, in Halliday v Nevill, Brennan J said:

The principle applies alike to officers of government and to private persons. A police officer who enters or remains on private property without the leave and licence of the person in possession or entitled to possession commits a trespass and acts outside the course of his duty unless his entering or remaining on the premises is authorized or excused by law.[9]

20.14  Implicit in this statement of the law is the recognition that the law—common law or statute—may authorise entry onto private property. Examples of such statutes are discussed in Chapter 16, which deals with laws authorising what would otherwise be a tort.

20.15  The protection of the landowner by the common law was so strong that protection of uninvited entrants from intentional or negligent physical injury by occupiers was slow to develop. It was only in 1828, in Bird v Holbrook, that the courts declared unlawful the deliberate maiming of a trespasser, albeit only if it was without prior warning.[10]