Although many court cases follow existing laws, some cases set new precedents or interpret the law in different ways. As a result, these cases become historic and controversial, influencing how we view future cases for years to come. In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the most famous cases in the history of Australian law.
Mabo vs Queensland (No 2) – 1992
Mabo vs Queensland (No 2) is arguably the most famous court case in Australian history. The case rewrote national land law, recognising indigenous Australians as the original inhabitants of Australia. It also ultimately led to indigenous Australians securing an apology from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
Overall, the case took over a decade to reach the final conclusion, allowing indigenous people across Australia to claim traditional rights to unalienated land.
Chamberlain vs the Queen – 1984
A murder trial that proved that the truth can be stranger than fiction, this case was one of the most widely broadcasted murder trials in history.
The case centred around the death of an infant on a camping holiday. The prosecution claimed that she had been murdered by her mother, while the mother claimed she had been taken by a dingo.
In spite of questionable blood testing, poor eye witness testimony that often backed the defendant and a forensic scientist who had their evidence overturned in previous trials, Chamberlain was found guilty.
New evidence emerged in 1986 that the child may have in fact been killed by a dingo (this was corroborated in 2012), meaning that Chamberlain was released and eventually acquitted.
Al-Kateb vs Godwin – 2004
The case of Ahmed Al-Kateb is arguably Australia’s most famous and controversial immigration case. Born in Palestine to Kuwaiti parents, Al-Kateb was stateless. When he was refused a temporary protection visa in Australia, he could not be returned to his country of origin.
In its ruling, the High Court decided that he could be detained indefinitely and that it was lawful to indefinitely detain any stateless person. Huge controversy surrounded the decision, which led to Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone reviewing the cases of 24 stateless people in immigration detention.
In addition, other countries found this indefinite detention unlawful due to the European Convention on Human Rights. Al-Kateb was eventually released (alongside others) and was awarded a permanent visa in 2007.
Waltons Stores (Interstate) Ltd vs Maher – 1988
This case is a classic David vs Goliath story, with a rare victory for David. A case of contract law, it established promissory estoppel as its own cause of action. This means that even though a contract hadn’t been signed, it could still be enforced because it was promised.
Although it was deemed that the Mahers did not have a contract with Waltons (and were left with a half re-built building), the court found that Waltons owed damages to the Mahers because they led them to believe that a contract was merely a formality.
Commonwealth vs Tasmania – 1983
Our final court case is a constitutional landmark and an environmental victory. The case saw the Federal and Tasmanian governments clash in the High Court over the construction of a hydroelectric dam. While the Tasmanian Government believed that they had a legal right to build the dam, the Federal Government opposed it under the World Heritage Convention.
The Federal Government won a 4:3 majority in the High Court, setting not only a new legal precedent, but also preserving a key piece of Australian wilderness.
These are just a few examples of hugely influential and controversial cases in Australian law. Although the vast majority of cases follow precedents, it’s always interesting to see how the law evolves and is applied.
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