"On July 5, 1999, Mrs Osland submitted a petition for mercy to the then-Attorney General, Jan Wade. That petition set out six grounds on which the petition should be granted. Following consultation with the State Opposition, I appointed a panel of three senior counsel, Susan Crennan QC, Jack Rush QC and Paul Holdenson QC, to consider Mrs Osland's petition.This week I received a memorandum of joint advice from the panel in relation to the petition. The joint advice recommends on every ground that the petition should be denied. After carefully considering the joint advice, I have recommended to the Premier that the Governor be advised to deny the petition. The Governor has accepted this advice and denied the petition."
"On the hearing of an application for review the Tribunal shall have, in addition to any other power, the same powers as an agency or a Minister in respect of a request, including power to decide that access should be granted to an exempt document (not being a document referred to in section 28, section 29A, section 31(3), or in section 33) where the Tribunal is of opinion that the public interest requires that access to the document should be granted under this Act.
- The power to grant access on public interest grounds is not, in terms, vested in the relevant Minister or agency. By virtue of s 16 they retain their freedom to grant access to exempt documents. Rather, it is a power included in the powers conferred on the Tribunal. In this respect it is unique in freedom of information legislation in Australia. It has been called a "significant and exceptional" power and "a most extraordinary provision". These epithets do not justify its characterisation, propounded by the Secretary, as a power to be exercised only in "exceptional circumstances" Those words are not in the statutory text. Their use may misdirect the inquiry required by s 50(4). They may be taken erroneously to limit the range of matters relevant to the public interest. Nor do they sit easily with the proper approach to the construction of the FOI Act, which is to "further, rather than hinder, free access to information" under it Having said that, it must be accepted that the word "requires" which appears in s 50(4) directs the decision-maker to identify a high-threshold public interest before the power can be exercised. It is not enough that access to the documents could be justified in the public interest. The terminology of the sub-section does not define a rule so much as an evaluative standard requiring restraint in the exercise of the power. It is, like many common law standards, "predicated on fact-value complexes, not on mere facts" to be applied by the decision-maker.
.....the Court of Appeal did not do, on the remitter, what this Court had required it to do. Putting to one side the debate about whether it could justify its exercise of power under s 148(7) by reference to errors of law identified in its first decision, the Court of Appeal did not consider the question of law raised by s 50(4), nor did it consider the exercise of the discretion under that sub-section, by reference to the content of the disputed documents and the differences between them. Nor did it appear to give any real consideration to the limited nature of its jurisdiction under s 148.
75. The task which the Court of Appeal set for itself on remitter may be seen from the first question it posed for determination following its findings that there were material differences in the advices: "Does the public interest require that access be given?" This was followed by a consideration of "The public interest in accountability". The Court concluded with an inquiry as to whether "the particular circumstances of the case require disclosure". By posing the question it did and undertaking the inquiries identified, the Court of Appeal did not review what the Tribunal had done, and had said in its reasons, for error of law. Rather, it impermissibly assumed the role of the Tribunal and substituted its own decision.
38. It acknowledged that there might be public interest factors favouring access. In the event it identified none. Nevertheless, it said that the task confronting it involved "a balancing process".What was balanced against what did not emerge. It was common ground that the power to grant access under s 50(4) was exercisable "only if the tribunal (or, in this case, the court) concluded that the public interest required that access be granted" The Court held that nothing in the language of the press release warranted a finding that the Attorney-General had represented to the public either that the joint advice was the only advice he received on the topic or that he had received no advice to the contrary. The announcement was intended to convey, and in fact conveyed, no more than that the decision had been based on, and accorded with, independent legal advice from eminent counsel. Mrs Osland's alternative argument, that the Attorney-General's "assumption" of political accountability for his decision required that the documents be released in the public interest, was also rejected.
- The exercise of the prerogative of mercy in relation to a person convicted of murder engages the public interest at a high level of importance. That importance is all the greater when, as was accepted by all of the authors of the advices in this case, the legal correctness of the conviction is not in issue, nor is it able to be put in issue. A decision for or against the exercise of the prerogative in such a case involves considerations of fundamental importance to the whole community relating to the right to life and the community's treatment of those who violate that right by killing another without legal justification or excuse. In this case, the Attorney-General recognised the importance of that public interest by disclosing, in his press release, that the recommendation which he made to the Premier was based upon independent advice from persons of high standing and reputation in the legal profession and in the wider community. The press release did not, however, disclose that the joint advice was based substantially upon normative judgments about the desirability of exercising the prerogative of mercy on grounds which did not impugn the correctness of the conviction. It did not disclose that differing judgments had also been proffered.
- The nature of the differences between the advices, throwing up opinions about the fairness and authority of the criminal justice system, the circumstances of Mrs Osland's situation, and asserted inadequacies in the law in relation to chronic domestic violence, was such as to be capable of supporting the formation of an opinion that the public interest required the disclosure of the documents. It was, at the very least, arguable, in the circumstances of the case, that the high-threshold public interest standard was met and that the public interest required disclosure of the contending, essentially normative propositions which the Attorney-General had before him when he recommended that Mrs Osland's petition be denied. The differences between the authors of the advices were on questions readily comprehensible by members of the public. They did not turn upon arcane disagreements, likely to be misunderstood, about the interpretation of the relevant law. Against the weight of such considerations, in applying s 50(4) of the FOI Act the interests protected by legal professional privilege, and recognised by s 32(1) of that Act, in the particular case were arguably of diminished importance. When the Attorney-General received the advices which he did from various members of the legal profession, he did so on behalf of the public and not as a private citizen. Such continuing public interest as there was in the privilege attaching to the documents in the circumstances of this case was capable of being put to one side against the public interest in disclosure.
- The preceding conclusions are sufficient to answer the question of law implicit in s 50(4) in favour of Mrs Osland...
82. In order to apply s 50(4), it was necessary for Morris J to form the opinion that the public interest required access to the documents, given the circumstances surrounding the making of the press release. Whether access was required might depend, to a large extent, on the nature of the public interest identified by his Honour. It was recognised in the joint reasons on the earlier appeal to this Court that "there are obvious difficulties in giving the phrase 'public interest' as it appears in s 50(4) a fixed and precise content."Nevertheless it was said that the assumption by the Attorney-General of political accountability, by putting out the press release, might be sufficient to enliven s 50(4). There is no reason why, given the inconsistency in the advices, this should not be so and the view expressed by Morris J as to the public interest seen as one within the purview of the sub-section.Was justice done?
As to what to make of the Attorney General's decision to refuse the mercy petition, opinions range from Mrs Osland as reported in the Bendigo Advertiser to James Campbell in the Herald Sun. I'm just pleased some of the earlier views of the Victorian Court of Appeal, such as this, don't stand:
"(i)t is.. outside the scope of s50(4) for this Court to decide, as a matter of generality, whether there should be public scrutiny of legal advices received by a Minister in connection with the making of an executive decision. That is so whether the public interest is said to reside in greater transparency or in greater accountability… Whether ministerial accountability entails the production of legal advices relied on by ministers in making decisions, and if so in what circumstances, is a policy question which will fall to be considered, if and when it arises, by the executive or by the legislature