The Most Influential Court Cases in Australian History

Australia has only been an independent nation for just over 100 years, and in that time there have been some incredibly influential and historic legal cases that have gone on the have pervasive impacts on the law of the land.

Here is a list of some of the most influential court cases in the last half century.

Chamberlain v the Queen – 1948

One of the most well-known murder trial in Australian history, Chamberlain v the Queen is regularly mentioned when discussing a miscarriage of justice in Australia.

The trial itself related to the death of a nine-week-old baby named Azaria Chamberlain during a family camping trip in the Northern Territory.

While the prosecution claims that she had been murdered by her own mother Lindy Chamberlain, she claimed that Azaria was taken by a dingo.

Finally, it was found that Lindy had in fact been telling the truth. It wasn’t until 1986, however, that she was released from prion and acquitted on the charges of murder.

Ruddock v Vadarlis – 2001

This immigration case involved the Norwegian cargo vessel MV Tampa, which was denied entry to Australia after it recused 438 asylum seekers who had been stranded on a sinking boat. The controversy began when the captain of the MV Tampa declared a state of emergency when it entered Australian waters.

It was at that point that Australian commandos boarded the ship and detained the asylum seekers. The result was a civil suit by the Council for Civil Liberties Eric Vadarlis, who sought a writ of habeas corpus for the asylum seekers.

While Vadarlis did win the first court trial, the Federal Government successfully appealed to the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia, where it was decided that the government had the right to deny entry of non-citizens into Australia.

Wik Peoples v Queensland – 1996

The Wik Decision was highly impactful when it came to the future of land rights in Australia. This specific issued dealt with the strip of land on the Cape York Peninsula, and the case was brought before the Federal Court of Australia to determine the native rights of the Wik Peoples.

The decision in the High Scout eventually ruled in favor of the Wik Peoples and it marked a milestone in terms of deciding what to do with competing claims of native lands and leases.

Dietrich v the Queen – 1992

Olaf Dietrich became an unexpected champion of human rights when he was charged with smuggling heroin in condoms. He was, as a result, refused trial aid unless he pled guilty to his charges, despite common law’s widely held tradition to his right of a fair trial.

Despite the fact that Dietrich went on to commit other series crimes, such as armed robberies, it was a solidification of the right to a fair trial in Australia, no matter the nature of the crime.

Waltons Stores Ltd v Maher – 1988

This case had such a huge impact on the law of the land because it was the case that established promissory estoppel as its own cause of action as an attack instead of as defense.

The strength of contract law allowed for damages to be sought and principles like ‘unconscionable conduct’ to be cited in a case. Because Walton Stores Ltd had so convinced the Mahers that a contract was going to take place, the court decided that they owed the Mahers damages as if they had, even though they never truly did sign a legal contract.

Commonwealth v Tasmania – 1983

Known colloquially as the “Tasmanian Dam Case,” this is remembered fondly as both a constitutional landmark and an environmental victory. The case, which saw the Australian and Tasmanian governments clash in the High Court of Australia, dealt with the proposed construction of a hydropower damn on the Gordon River in southwest Tasmania.

The Tasmanian government argued its right to construct the dam, the Federal Government worked to get in their way, citing Australia’s responsibility under the World Heritage Convention.

In 1983, the Federal Government won with a 4:3 majority ruling in the High Court. It saved the Gordn River, and it set a precedent for preserving Australian wilderness for years to come.

Mabo v Queensland – 1992

In 2007, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the Indigenous Australians for the past atrocities committed by the Australian government.

That likely would not have taken place if not for Mabo v Queensland.

The landmark case was responsible for removing the 17th century doctrine of terra nullius, and inserting native title in Australian law. The case not only changed one of the oldest doctrines of national land law, but also finally acknowledged Indigenous Australians as the original inhabitants of Australia.

The case, which spanned over a decade, revoled around the Meriam People’s campaign to claim legal ownership over the ancestral lands on the island of Mer in the Torres Strait. While there was powerful opposition from the Queensland government, and while two of the original five claimants died before the conclusion of the case, the High Court ultimately ruled in a 6:1 majority in favor of the Meriam People. This move led to the Native Title Act a year later, which allowed Indigenous people across Australia to claim traditional rights to unalienated land.

While there are many landmark cases that have had lasting impact on the law of Australia, these cases marked changes in not only the law of the commonwealth, but the opinions of the men and women who call it home.

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