5 Controversial and Historic Court Cases in Australia

Many court cases are routine and follow existing law that has been put in place. However, sometimes a court case takes place that sets a new precedent or interprets the law in an unexpected way.

These historic and sometimes controversial cases can end up reported widely by the media, cited often by lawyers and law students, and might also influence how the law is enforced for years to come. They can take place in all areas of law, from constitutional or criminal law to family or business law. These five Australian court cases have all resulted in historic or perhaps controversial decisions.

Waltons Stores vs Maher

Court Case 1 – Waltons Stores (Interstate) Ltd vs Maher, 1988

This contract law case, which took place in the Australian High Court, decided that promissory estoppel could be its own course of action. What this means is that a contract that hadn’t been signed yet but that had been promised could still be enforced. The court case began when Maher began negotiating with Waltons Stores, a department store company, in regards to leasing some land that Maher owned. Waltons Stores wanted to demolish an existing building and build a new one.

With this in mind, Maher began to demolish the building, although a contract hadn’t yet been completed. In fact, the lease was never signed, after Maher acted in a hostile manner towards Waltons Stores. Waltons instructed their solicitors to reassess whether the business deal would still be a good one, all the while, they allowed Maher to believe that the contract would go ahead. When the case went to court, it was decided that Waltons Stores owed damages to Maher because they did nothing to stop Maher believing that a contract was merely a formality.

Mambo vs Queensland

Court Case 2 – Mabo vs Queensland (No 2), 1992

Land and property ownership can often lead to controversial issues in a country where the relationship between indigenous peoples and more recent settlers has been and still often is so fraught. In 2007, indigenous Australians were finally able to secure an apology from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd concerning “the stolen generation”. While there is still a long way to go, that point would unlikely not have been reached without previous legal action. Mabo v Queensland (No 2) was one such important court case. This case essentially rewrote national land law and recognised Indigenous Australians as the original inhabitants of Australia.

The case took over ten years to reach a conclusion, beginning with the Meriam People’s fight to take legal ownership of their land on the island of Mer in the Torres Strait. Eventually, the High Court ruled in favour of the Meriam People, although there was strong opposition from the Queensland Government. The ruling led to the creation of the Native Title Act in 1993, allowing indigenous people across Australia to claim traditional rights to unalienated land.

Al Kateb vs Godwin

Court Case 3 – Al-Kateb vs Godwin, 2004

Some important immigration court cases have been heard in Australia. Al-Kateb v Godwin is one of the more controversial cases. Ahmed Al-Kateb was born in Palestine to Kuwaiti parents, which meant he was stateless. Without citizenship, he could not be returned to his country of origin from Australia when he was refused a temporary protection visa. The High Court of Australia decided that Al-Kateb could be detained indefinitely and, in fact, that it was lawful to indefinitely detain any stateless person. He was, however, eventually released along with a number of other people and was awarded a permanent visa in 2007.

The court case resulted in a lot of controversy among the public and immigration lawyers, which led to the Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone agreeing to review the cases of 24 stateless people in immigration detention, nine of whom were granted bridging visas and released. There was also controversy concerning the court process and human rights protection. Similar cases in other countries found indefinite administrative detention unlawful, based on framework such as the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Commonwealth vs ACT

Court Case 4 – The Commonwealth vs ACT, 2013

In a recent plebiscite, Australia voted in favour of same-sex marriage, and in December 2017, Parliament approved a change in the law. However, before that, there had been efforts to legalise same-sex marriage. The Australian Capital Territory used the Marriage Equality (Same Sex) Act 2013 to try and build on the existing recognition of same-sex unions in the ACT, which included civil partnerships and civil unions. The Act came into place on 7 November 2013, but by after a challenge in this court case from the High Court of Australia, was struck out by 12 December 2013.

The Commonwealth argued that the Act was in conflict with the Federal Marriage Act 1961, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. The High Court ruled that the Act was inconsistent with the Federal Marriage Act and therefore could have no legal effect. However, the Court also said that the scope of the ‘Marriage Power’ section of the Marriage Act was broad enough that it could include marriages between same-sex couples.

ACCC vs Reckitt Benckiser

Court Case 5 – ACCC vs Reckitt Benckiser, 2016

This court case is an interesting one for businesses, both because it involves a well-known brand and because it serves as a warning to businesses not to misrepresent their products. This is one of the issues a commercial lawyer might help you avoid. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) launched legal action against Reckitt Benckiser, the UK-based firm that makes the painkiller Nurofen. The claim was that Nurofen were misrepresenting their products by labeling different Nurofen tablets as being able to target specific types of pain. For example, one tablet claimed to be for back pain, while another was supposedly for migraines. Not only that, but they said that these tablets contained the same generic ingredients as standard Nurofen, but were priced significantly higher.

The court ruled that Reckitt Benckiser had misled customers and that the different pills all contained the same active ingredient. The court ordered the products to be removed from shops within three months. The company was also ordered to pay a $1.7m fine, but this was increased to $6m, following a consumer watchdog appeal.

If you need legal assistance, Lazarus Legal and our team of expert lawyers and flexible legal advisors provide legal services across a range of practice areas. Call us on 02 8644 6000, we can help you make or AVOID history!

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