14.1 The common law recognises a duty to accord a person procedural fairness or natural justice when a decision is made that affects a person’s rights, interests or legitimate expectations. In Kioa v West (1985), Mason J said:
It is a fundamental rule of the common law doctrine of natural justice expressed in traditional terms that, generally speaking, when an order is made which will deprive a person of some right or interest or the legitimate expectation of a benefit, he is entitled to know the case sought to be made against him and to be given an opportunity of replying to it.
14.2 This chapter discusses the source and rationale of the principles of procedural fairness; how procedural fairness is protected from statutory encroachment; and when laws that encroach on it may be justified. The ALRC calls for submissions on two questions about this duty.
Question 14–1 What general principles or criteria should be applied to help determine whether a law that denies procedural fairness is justified?
Question 14–2 Which Commonwealth laws unjustifiably deny procedural fairness, and why are these laws unjustified?
14.3 Issues of procedural fairness generally arise in the context of decisions made by government departments and officials as well as quasi-judicial bodies such as tribunals. Such decisions may affect people in a range of contexts;
- decisions may curtail a person’s liberty, for example by detaining them in immigration detention; or
- affect their freedom of movement such as through deportation or resettlement; or
- have a significant effect on their economic well-being, for example, by decisions determining their entitlements to government pensions or other support.
14.4 Principles of procedural fairness recognise the power imbalance which may exist between an administrative decision-maker, such as a delegate representing a government agency, and an individual citizen.
14.5 While procedural fairness is protected at common law, statute also provides some protection for individuals. For instance, a breach of the rules of natural justice is a ground for judicial review under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977 (Cth).
14.6 In extra-curial commentary, Chief Justice Robert French has said that procedural fairness is ‘indispensable to justice’, and has highlighted five inter-related rationales for the duty to afford procedural fairness:
That it is instrumental, that is to say, an aid to good decision-making;
that it supports the rule of law by promoting public confidence in official decision-making;
that it has a rhetorical or libertarian justification as a first principle of justice, a principle of constitutionalism;
that it gives due respect to the dignity of individuals; and
by way of participatory or republican rationale—it is democracy’s guarantee of the opportunity for all to play their part in the political process.
14.7 Procedural fairness usually involves two requirements: the fair hearing rule and the rule against bias. The hearing rule requires a decision-maker to inform a person of the case against them and provide them with an opportunity to be heard. The extent of the obligation on the decision-maker depends on the relevant statutory framework and on what is fair in all the circumstances. In Commissioner of Police v Tanos (1985), Dixon CJ and Webb J held that
it is a deep-rooted principle of the law that before anyone can be punished or prejudiced in his person or property by an judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding he must be afforded an adequate opportunity to be heard.
14.8 The bias rule of procedural fairness requires that a decision-maker must not be biased (actual bias) or be seen by an informed observer to be biased in any way (apprehended or ostensible bias).
14.9 The rule against bias and the hearing rule are drawn from natural law and influenced by the work of the medieval philosopher and theologian, Thomas Aquinas. Chief Justice French explained:
As a normative marker for decision-making it [the rule against bias] predates by millennia the common law of England and its voyage to Australian colonies.
14.10 Procedural fairness in its contemporary form, developed in the common law in the early 17th century. Starting as a principle relating only to judicial functions, the application of natural justice was extended in the mid-19th century to all ‘quasi-judicial’ decisions in Cooper v Board of Works for the Wandsworth District (1863).
14.11 In Lam (2003), Callinan J explained that ‘natural justice by giving a right to be heard has long been the law of many civilised societies’:
That no man is to be judged unheard was a precept known to the Greeks, inscribed in ancient times upon images in places where justice was administered, proclaimed in Seneca’s Medea, enshrined in the scriptures, mentioned by St Augustine, embodied in Germanic as well as African proverbs, ascribed in the Year Books to the law of nature, asserted by Coke to be a principle of divine justice, and traced by an eighteenth-century judge to the events in the Garden of Eden.
Kioa v West (1985) 159 CLR 550. See also David Clark, Introduction to Australian Public Law (Lexis Nexis Butterworths, 4th ed, 2013) [12.34]. The common law doctrine has a ‘wide application and is presumed by the courts to apply to the exercise of virtually all statutory powers’: Matthew Groves, ‘Exclusion of the Rules of Natural Justice’ (2013) 39 Monash University Law Review 285, 285. The ‘particular requirements of compliance with the rules of natural justice will depend on the circumstances’: Re Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs; Ex Parte Lam (2003) 214 CLR 1, 16–17 .
Kioa v West (1985) 159 CLR 550, 582 (Mason J). Justice Mason’s approach to natural justice in Kioa is at odds with that of Justice Brennan in Kioa who reasoned that ‘there is no freestanding common law right to be accorded natural justice by the repository of a statutory power … There is no right to be accorded natural justice which exercise independently of statute and which, in the event of a contravention, can be invoked to invalidate executive action taken in due exercise of a statutory power’: Ibid 610–12. In Plaintiff M16/2010E a unanimous decision of the High Court suggested that the different approaches in Kioa to the foundation of the duty have not affected the application of the principle in subsequent cases: Plaintiff M16/2010E (2010) 243 CLR 319, 352 .
Principles of procedural fairness overlap with the principles of a fair trial and principles of judicial review, discussed in Chapters 8 and 18.
Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977 (Cth) s 1(a).
Chief Justice Robert S French, ‘Procedural Fairness—Indispensable to Justice?’ (2010) 1–2.
Plaintiff S157/2002 v Commonwealth (2003) 211 CLR 476, 489 (Gleeson CJ).
Commissioner of Police v Tanos (1985) 98 CLR 383, 395. ‘The fundamental rule is that a statutory authority having power to effect the rights of a person is bound to hear him before exercising the power’: Kioa v West (1985) 159 CLR 550, 563 (Gibbs CJ) quoting Mason J in FAI Insurances Ltd v Winneke (1982) 151 CLR 342, 360.
French, above n 5. The hearing rule appeared in cases in the medieval Year Books: HH Marshall, Natural Justice (Sweet & Maxwell, 1959) 18–19.
French, above n 5.
Robin Creyke, John McMillan and Mark Smyth, Control of Government Action: Text, Cases and Commentary (Lexis Nexis Butterworths, 3rd ed, 2012) [10.1.9]; French, above n 5, 3.
Cooper v Board of Works for the Wandsworth District  143 ER 414 Court of Common Pleas (1863). The court in this case extended natural justice to decisions interfering with property rights.
Re Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs; Ex Parte Lam (2003) 214 CLR 1, 45 . Callinan J was quoting Stanley de Smith, Harry Woolf and Jeffrey Jowell, Judicial Review of Administrative Action (Sweet & Maxwell, 5th ed, 1995) 378–379.