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Key decisions

  • Charisteas v Charisteas [2021] HCA 29
  • Edwards v The Queen [2021] HCA 28

Family law

Apprehension of bias and s 79 of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth)

In the High Court decision of Charisteas v Charisteas [2021] HCA 29 (6 October 2021) the High Court was required to determine two distinct issues. First, whether an apprehension of bias arose because the trial judge, while seised of the matter, had socialised with the barrister acting for the wife. Second, whether the Court’s power under s 79 of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) (‘Act’) to make orders in respect of the parties’ property had been spent at an earlier hearing.

The matter concerned a long-running property dispute between husband and wife. In 2011, Crisford J of the Family Court of Western Australia made property settlement orders under the Act (‘2011 Property Orders’). Part of the 2011 Property Orders provided for the early vesting of a trust (‘Early Vesting Orders’). One of the beneficiaries of the trust was the husband’s mother. The Full Court of the Family Court of Australia set aside the Early Vesting Orders because the husband’s mother had not been provided with procedural fairness. In 2015, Walters J of the Family Court of Western Australia (‘Trial Judge’) held the 2011 Property Orders were not final orders and the Court retained power to make property settlement orders under s 79 of the Act. In March 2016, the Trial Judge presided over a trial to finally determine the property settlement orders. On 12 February 2018, the Trial Judge delivered judgment and purported to make orders under s 79 of the Act (‘2018 Property Orders’). In March 2018, the husband appealed to the Full Court of the Family Court of Australia.

In May 2018, in response to ‘gossip’, the husband’s solicitor wrote to the wife’s barrister seeking written reassurance that during the time that the Trial Judge was seised of the matter, she had no contact with the Trial Judge outside of Court or, otherwise, an outline of the circumstances of her dealings with the Trial Judge. The wife’s barrister responded that she had met  the Trial Judge for coffee or a drink, had spoken to him on the telephone on several occasions and had exchanged numerous text messages with him. The barrister explained there had been no contact during the evidence stage of the trial and that, on none of these occasions, had they discussed the matter.

On appeal, the Full Court of the Family Court of Australia was required to determine two issues: (i) whether there was any apprehension of bias; and (ii) whether the Court could make orders pursuant to s 79 of the Act (or whether this power had been exhausted with the making of the 2011 Property Orders). The Full Court dismissed the husband’s appeal (Strickland and Ryan JJ, Alstergren CJ dissenting). Strickland and Ryan JJ considered that the Trial Judge’s failure to abstain from, or disclose, his communications with the wife’s barrister would not be regarded by a hypothetical observer to be sinister. Their Honours also rejected the husband’s appeal against the 2018 Property Orders. Alstergren CJ would have allowed the appeal on the ground of apprehended bias alone and did not address s 79 of the Act.

The High Court unanimously allowed the husband’s appeal on both issues. Dealing first with the apprehension of bias, the High Court observed that the applicable principle was well established: ‘a judge is disqualified if a fair-minded lay observer might reasonably apprehend that the judge might not bring an impartial mind to the resolution of the question the judge is required to decide’ (at [11]). The High Court identified two distinct steps in the application of this principle. First, it requires finding a matter that might lead a judge to decide a case other than on its legal and factual merits. Second, it requires finding a ‘logical connection’ between that matter and the feared departure. The High Court noted that although the test is one of a ‘fair-minded lay observer’, it is, nonetheless, still applied in the context of ordinary judicial practice (at [12]). Here, the High Court affirmed as ‘the most basic of judicial practice’ the practice described by Gibbs CJ and Mason J in Re JRL; Ex parte CJL (1986) 161 CLR 342 at 346: ‘save in the most exceptional cases, there should be no communication or association between the judge and one of the parties (or the legal advisers or witnesses of such a party), otherwise than in the presence of or with the previous knowledge and consent of the other party’ (at [13]).

The High Court considered that the Trial Judge departed from this basic practice and that, in the circumstances, a fair-minded lay observer would reasonably apprehend that the Trial Judge might not bring an impartial mind to the resolution of the matter before him. The High Court observed that ‘[t]he apprehension of bias principle is so important to perceptions of independence and impartiality that even the appearance of departure from it is prohibited lest the integrity of the judicial system be undermined’ (at [18]).

Turning to the issue of s 79 of the Act, the High Court considered that when an order is made under s 79 (subject to the limited jurisdiction to vary or set it aside under s 79A) the power of the Court to make an order under s 79 is spent (at [25]). The High Court concluded that, save for the Early Vesting Orders which were subsequently set aside by the Full Court, the Trial Judge did not have power to make the the 2018 Property Orders.

Criminal practice

Prosecution’s duty of disclosure

In the High Court decision of Edwards v The Queen [2021] HCA 28 (6 October 2021), the High Court was required to determine whether the prosecutor’s duty to provide full and proper disclosure, under s 142 of Criminal Procedure Act 1986 (NSW), extended to serving the defendant with a copy of data downloaded from the defendant’s phone.

The defendant (‘Edwards’) was convicted of six counts of aggravated sexual intercourse with a person aged above 10 and under 14 years of age contrary to s 66C(2) of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW). Edwards argued his trial miscarried by reason of the prosecutor’s failure to provide his lawyers, ahead of the trial, with a hard drive containing a copy of data downloaded from his mobile phone by police (‘Download’). Although the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (‘ODPP’) had informed Edwards’ lawyer of the existence of the Download prior to trial, it did not serve a copy of the Download on Edwards or otherwise provide any information from the Download. Edwards’ lawyer became cognisant of the Download after the ODPP served a statement from a particular witness, Ms Birchill, on the Friday before the commencement of the trial. Edwards’ lawyer enquired how the ODPP came to know of the existence of Ms Birchill and was informed that Ms Birchill’s details had been obtained from the Download. Edwards did not seek an adjournment of the trial or an exclusion of Ms Birchill’s evidence.

On appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeal, Edwards argued that if the ODPP had disclosed that Ms Birchill’s details had been extracted from the Download, then he would have been alerted to the fact that the Download could be mined for potentially useful information for his defence. The Court of Criminal Appeal (Leeming JA, Johnson and Harrison JJ) unanimously dismissed Edwards’ appeal. The Court of Criminal Appeal concluded it was not part of a prosecutor’s duty to disclose how the ODPP identified witnesses. Nor was it part of a prosecutor’s duty to tell Edwards that he might find the Download useful for his defence.

The High Court also unanimously dismissed Edwards’ appeal. Kiefel CJ, Keane and Gleeson JJ noted it was settled law that a failure by the prosecution to disclose all relevant evidence to the accused may result in the quashing of a guilty verdict (at [24]). But, their Honours also observed that Edwards was unable to show how the failure to serve a copy of the Download on him undermined his entitlement to a fair trial (at [25]). Further, their Honours noted that Edwards could have sought an adjournment of the trial to enable him to make inquiries, but didn’t (at [30]). Their Honours also noted it was open to Edwards to instruct his lawyers to obtain a copy of the Download (at [31]). The existence of the Download had been identified by the ODPP well in advance of the service of Ms Birchill’s witness statement. In a separate judgment, Edelman and Steward JJ considered that the Download should have been served on Edwards but did not consider that it resulted in a miscarriage of justice. Edelman and Steward JJ, like Kiefel CJ et al, observed that Edwards had failed to establish there was any information in the Download which would have assisted his defence.

Dr Michelle Sharpe
is a barrister in Castan Chambers in Melbourne.