Williams v Spautz [1992] HCA 34

ON 27 JULY 1992, the High Court of Australia delivered Williams v Spautz [1992] HCA 34; (1992) 174 CLR 509 (27 July 1992).


The case concerns the use of the court’s power to grant a stay of proceedings when the proceedings have been used for an improper purpose.

After being dismissed from the University of Newcastle, Dr Spautz threatened, instituted and maintained private prosecutions of charges of conspiracy and criminal defamation against former colleagues including Professor Williams and others (“the appellants”).

The appellants obtained a stay of proceedings order from the Supreme Court of NSW. The trial judge found that the proceedings had been brought for the improper purpose of “exerting pressure upon the University of Newcastle to reinstate him and/or to agree to a favourable settlement of his wrongful dismissal case”.

The NSW Court of Appeal quashed the orders, holding that the appellants could receive a fair trial and that there was no evidence of any misconduct in the way the prosecution was conducted.

The High Court allowed an appeal, setting aside the Court of Appeal’s decision, declaring that the prosecutions were an abuse of process and ordering that the prosecutions be stayed permanently.

The decision provides:

  • Australian courts have the inherent jurisdiction to stay criminal and civil proceedings.
  • The court may grant stays in (1) proceedings in which a party may not receive a fair trial and (2) proceedings brought for an improper purpose.
  • Before granting a stay for improper purpose, the court is not required to satisfy itself that there will be an unfair trial if the prosecution is not stopped: at 519-520.
  • Proceedings may be stayed notwithstanding that the prosecution has a prima facie case: at 522.
  • The court must have the power to act effectively within its jurisdiction, even if it means refraining from exercising their jurisdiction as it is in the public interest to ensure public confidence that the processes are used fairly and not for oppression or injustice.

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