Judicial activism

The common law is an interesting and organic beast. To explain: our basic system of law is judge-made law. The common law became somewhat inflexible in medieval times, and thus many litigants started appealing to the King. The King got sick of dealing with the petitions, and palmed them off to the Lord Chancellor. Eventually, the Lord Chancellor set up his own court to deal with these questions, called the Court of Chancery (the court of Equity), which dealt with cases on the basis of conscience and fairness. It was a parallel system, separate from the common law, but when the two conflicted, it was equity which prevailed over common law: Earl of Oxford’s Case (1615) Mich 13 Jac 1; 21 ER 485. The Chancery courts used an inquisitorial system rather than an adversarial system, and accordingly, cases before these courts became increasingly drawn out and inefficient, as famously portrayed by Dickens in Bleak House. Thus, the legislature decided to “fuse” the two systems by means of the Judicature Acts of 1873 and 1875. Accordingly, a judge in a “fused” court could apply both rules of equity and the common law. In all Australian States apart from New South Wales, Judicature Acts were also enacted shortly after the UK versions were enacted. New South Wales did not fuse its common law and equitable courts until 1972. Consequently, the New South Wales Equity Bar produced some fine and learned equity lawyers, but they also tended to be very conservative indeed.

Obviously, these days, legislation (enacted by Parliament) plays a very much greater role in the development of the law, but the common law and equity are still important, and still keep developing.

Why the mini lecture at the start of this post? Well, I was reading a New South Wales Court of Appeal case called Harris v Digital Pulse Pty Ltd [2003] NSWCA 10, and it raises some interesting questions about “judicial activism”. Judicial activism is a perjorative term. It is directed at judges who ignore precendent, and instead mediate a dispute in accordance with their own personal prejudices about what is appropriate social and political policy. The Mason Court of the 1980s was frequently accused of judicial activism, as it produced decisions giving rise to an implied right of political freedom of speech in the Constitution and the Mabo decision, among others.

In Harris, Heydon JA (now a judge of the High Court) had this to say about the role of creativity and the judiciary at [456] – [458]:

As to Sir George Jessel MR’s account of the development of equity in Re Hallett’s Estate, it is true that the rules of equity have changed from time to time, and true that individual Chancellors – and Masters of the Rolls, Lord Keepers and Vice Chancellors – have effected these changes. It is also true that the rules can be changed in future. But those deeds of single judges were done when there was no appellate jurisdiction in the House of Lords, or very limited access to it, at a time before modern parliamentary democracy had developed, and members of parliaments consisted largely of wealthy men who in turn supported Cabinets composed largely of aristocratic oligarchs whom it was difficult to interest in the details of private law. What individual judges did in those constitutional and forensic conditions is not a sound guide to what modern Australian courts, at least at levels below the High Court, can do. A single equity judge in the time of Sir George Jessel MR had the power, the competence, the authority and the capacity to compel acceptance from other judges which only the High Court has now, at least where the change goes beyond the application of existing principles in a new way or marginal extensions of the law.

In In re Diplock. Diplock v Wintle [1948] Ch 465 at 481-2 Lord Greene MR, Wrottesley and Evershed LJJ said of the equitable claim made in that case by next-of-kin against persons who had wrongly received the testator’s assets under an invalid bequest:

“if the claim in equity exists it must be shown to have an ancestry founded in history and in the practice and precedents of the courts administering equity jurisdiction. It is not sufficient that because we may think that the ‘justice’ of the present case requires it, we should invent such a jurisdiction for the first time.”

The defendants relied on those words. That is a sound modern approach, at least for courts below the High Court, and at least where anything more than non-radical change is involved.

Sir George Jessel MR’s judicial life coincided with the time when democracy in a modern form was beginning and the responsiveness of Parliament to social or legal ills was starting to develop. It was a time when the judiciary was small, highly skilled and united. It is now large, less skilled, and far from entirely united. For courts below the High Court to act in the manner of the single judges sitting in Chancery who made modern equity is to invite the spread of a wilderness of single instances, a proliferation of discordant and idiosyncratic opinions, and ultimately an anarchic “system” operating according to the forms, but not the realities, of law.

As I read it, his Honour is essentially saying that no judge except one who is on the High Court can develop a new doctrine of law or equity. Anything else is “judicial activism”. Lower court judges just have to apply “the law”. The judgment of the High Court in the case of Farah Constructions Pty Ltd v Saydee Pty Ltd [2007] HCA 22 displays a similar sensibility, which was one of the reasons why I suspect it was penned by Heydon J.

It is very important that like cases be decided in a like manner, otherwise unfairness could result. This is why the common law has the doctrine of stare decisis or following precedent. So if X fell off her bicycle and got compensation, and I fell of my scooter in almost identical circumstances, I would expect to be treated in much the same way as X. It would not be fair if the trial judge had an unreasoning dislike of scooters and decided that I should not get compensation because she did not like the proliferation of scooters in society. Nonetheless, if there was a “right answer” as to what the law was in every dispute, we lawyers would be out of a job. The whole point is that one can usually argue the point either way in cases which actually make it to trial.

Next point: not all cases will be exactly like a case which went before. Indeed, surely if it was exactly like a previous case, it is likely that one side’s solicitors would have advised them to settle. In the event, if the case is not quite like any previous case, the judge has to look at the cases and legislation which govern the area and decide how the law applies to this slightly different situation. The more different the situation is from anything that has gone before, the more difficult it is for the judge to decide on the basis of existing law. What a judge should do in this circumstance is develop principle in a way which is consonant with previous cases, but which also adapts to the new circumstances. In this way, the judge is not indulging in judicial activism. She is extending the law out to a new situation, but in a way which is consistent with principle.

Indeed, it could result in great inflexibility and injustice if a court cannot deviate from principle which has gone before even though the circumstances are different to anything which has gone before. This was one of the reasons why the law of equity arose: because of the failure of common law courts to adapt to changing circumstances and difficult situations created great injustice. Heydon JA’s judgment seems to me to be out of touch with the spirit and genesis of equity. Also, it may be scary for some lawyers to know this, but the law is slowly changing and developing all the time. Otherwise we would still be stuck applying some kind of medieval common law, unchanged for millennia.

Now, a very important point. What happens if I have a novel legal situation, but I cannot afford to appeal all the way to the High Court (as Heydon JA seems to think necessary)? In that circumstance, it is up to the trial judge to make the best and fairest decision that he can, and to show some creativity. We can’t all afford to take litigation up to the High Court and hire silks. (Well, I doubt if I could afford to indulge in any litigation whatsoever, but fortunately for me, that’s not an issue I’ve had to face). Obviously a trial judge cannot overrule a High Court decision, and cannot ignore law that has gone before. But I definitely think there is room for a trial judge to show creativity in a situation which is novel and does not bear any analogy to a previous case. And it should not be necessary to require litigants to go all the way to the High Court. Such a point of view is unrealistic and elitist.

Aaah. I feel much better now I’ve gotten that off my chest.

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2 Comments

Filed under Australia, courts, law

2 responses to “Judicial activism

  1. At least the law profession has a way of sometimes forcing policy changes. It’s a pity scientists don’t have the same power on issues in their area of expertise… at least until we have law/science graduates up high in the magisterial food chain. How many arguments about administrative decisions with a science component could be considered novel given that scientific data and thinking evolves so fast (e.g. stem cells, atmospheric data, yada, yada, yada). That gives lots of scope for progress in courts!

  2. Pingback: Club Troppo » Missing Link Daily

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