Journal article

The constitutional duty to give reasons for judicial decisions

1 Oct 2017
Description

The obligation of judicial officers to provide reasons for their decisions has been described by Sir Anthony Mason, a former Chief Justice of the High Court, as an element of the broader 'culture of justification’ that exists in modern democracies. While there is an increasing international scholarly literature examining the duty to give reasons for judicial decisions, the Australian scholarly literature is far less developed. This article contributes to that developing literature by arguing that in Australia there is an absolute constitutional duty to provide reasons for judicial decisions and by examining whether the general practice of the New South Wales Court of Appeal and the High Court complies with that duty when deciding applications for leave or special leave to appeal.

There is clear authority in Australia that reasons for judicial decisions should ordinarily, although not always, be provided and that a failure to provide reasons, where they are required, is an error of law. This article makes two central doctrinal arguments. The first doctrinal argument is that it is a defining characteristic of courts and of the exercise of judicial power that reasons for judicial decisions are always given. The second doctrinal argument is that a failure to provide reasons is not just an error of law but is a jurisdictional error. This article also provides important statistical data on the practice of giving reasons for applications for leave and special leave to appeal by the New South Wales Court of Appeal and the High Court. That analysis shows that the New South Wales Court of Appeal always complies with the constitutional duty to provide reasons for judicial decisions in respect of leave to appeal applications but that the High Court only sometimes complies with that constitutional duty in respect of special leave to appeal applications.

The article is structured as follows. Part II examines the existing authorities concerning the duty to give reasons for judicial decisions. Relying on the underlying principles of the authorities considered in Part II, Part III develops the argument that it is a defining characteristic of courts and of the exercise of judicial power that reasons for judicial decisions are always given. Part IV furthers the analysis in Part III by explaining what amounts to adequate reasons in order to comply with the constitutional duty to provide reasons for judicial decisions.

In Part V, the article examines the consequences of a failure to comply with the constitutional duty to provide reasons for judicial decision. Part V argues that a failure to comply with the duty is not simply an error of law, as existing authorities hold, but is in fact a jurisdictional error. The jurisdictional error arises because a failure to comply with the duty impairs the institutional integrity of the court and, possibly also, because a failure to comply amounts to a denial of procedural fairness. Part VI examines the content of the duty to give reasons in respect of applications for leave or special leave to appeal. Part VI explains the scope of the constitutional duty in the context of leave and special leave to appeal applications and undertakes an empirical analysis of decisions of the High Court and the New South Wales Court of Appeal to see whether practice is consistent with principle. Part VI also discusses the implications of the High Court’s regular failure to comply with the constitutional duty. Part VII offers some concluding comments.

Publication Details
Volume: 
40
Issue: 
3
Pagination: 
923-951
License Type: 
All Rights Reserved
Peer Reviewed: 
Yes
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