ON THIS DAY IN 2010, the High Court of Australia delivered Kirk v Industrial Relations Commission; Kirk Group Holdings Pty Ltd v WorkCover Authority of New South Wales (Inspector Childs)  HCA 1 (3 February 2010).
Kirk was charged for offences under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 1983 (NSW). The statement of offence did not identify the acts or omissions that constituted the alleged offences.
The charges were heard by the NSW Industrial Court. During the hearing the prosecution called Kirk as a witness for the prosecution.
Kirk was convicted and sentenced.
Kirk appealed to the NSW Court of Appeal seeking an order in the nature of certiorari on the grounds that there was a jurisdictional error. Kirk argued that the Industrial Court exceeded its jurisdiction in two ways: (1) the statement of offence did not identify the acts of omissions that constituted the alleged offences, nor the measures available to address the risks, so the defendant was denied an opportunity to properly defend the charges and (2) that under s17(2) of the Evidence Act 1995 (NSW), a defendant is not competent to give evidence for the prosecution and the trial was therefore conducted otherwise than in accordance with the laws of evidence. The NSW Court of Appeal refused to quash the convictions and sentences on the grounds that s179 of the Industrial Relations Act 1996 (NSW) prohibits an appeal against a review, quashing or calling into question a decision of the Industrial Court.
The High Court allowed the appeal, set aside the Court of Appeal’s decision and quashed the convictions and sentences. In overturning the Court of Appeal, High Court held that (1) the a “decision” does not include a decision made by the Industrial Court outside of their jurisdiction and (2) it was beyond the power of the State legislature to limit the power of a State Supreme Court to grant relief to correct jurisdictional errors made by courts and tribunals of limited jurisdiction.
“If … an administrative tribunal falls into an error of law which causes it to identify a wrong issue, to ask itself a wrong question, to ignore relevant material, to rely on irrelevant material or, at least in some circumstances, to make an erroneous finding or to reach a mistaken conclusion, and the tribunal’s exercise or purported exercise of power is thereby affected, it exceeds its authority or powers. Such an error of law is jurisdictional error which will invalidate any order or decision of the tribunal which reflects it.”
“a failure by an inferior court to take into account some matter which it was, as a matter of law, required to take into account in determining a question within jurisdiction or reliance by such a court upon some irrelevant matter upon which it was, as a matter of law, not entitled to rely in determining such a question will not ordinarily involve jurisdictional error”.
A court falls into jurisdictional error “if it mistakenly asserts or denies the existence of jurisdiction or if it misapprehends or disregards the nature or limits of its functions or powers in a case where it correctly recognises that jurisdiction does exist”.
Jurisdictional error “is at its most obvious where the inferior court purports to act wholly or partly outside the general area of its jurisdiction in the sense of entertaining a matter or making a decision or order of a kind which wholly or partly lies outside the theoretical limits of its functions and powers”.
Examples of a court acting beyond its jurisdiction by entertaining a matter outside the limits of the court’s functions include:
the absence of a jurisdictional fact
disregard of a matter that a relevant statute requires to be taken into account or ignored as a condition of jurisdiction.
misconstruction of the relevant statute thereby misconceiving the nature of the court’s function or extent of its powers with respect to the particular issue, though the line between jurisdictional error and mere error of exercise of jurisdiction may be difficult to identify.
A husband failed to appear in family law proceedings in the Supreme Court of NSW due to a misunderstanding on the part of his legal representative. In his absence, the court made orders dissolving the marriage and transferring the matrimonial home to the wife. Once the husband became aware of the orders, he made an application to the newly established Family Court seeking variation of the Supreme Court orders to the effect that the matrimonial home be sold and the net proceeds be divided between he and his wife. On the day of the application, the wife’s legal representatives mistakenly attended the Family Law Division of the Supreme Court rather than the Family Court. In the absence of the wife, orders were made by Hogan J of the Family Court in accordance with the relief sought by the husband. The wife then appealed to the Full Court of the Family Court, who allowed the appeal ruling that Hogan J did not possess the statutory power to amend the Supreme Court’s orders.
The High Court allowed an appeal, ordering that the previous orders be set aside and that there be a re-hearing of the matter.
The High Court held that a court has an inherent jurisdiction to set aside orders where it is in the interests of justice to do so.