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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Do public servants take much notice of tribunal decisions?

At both Federal and state government level, Australia has many tribunals that undertake merits review of administrative decisions. In a recent paper "The Impact of External Administrative Law Review: Tribunals", Linda Pearson of the University of NSW (and a part time member of the NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal) raises some important questions about the impact of tribunal decisions on the bureaucracy. She says that despite the fact that lawyers, administrators, tribunals and courts have been talking about these issues for 30 years, there is still limited evidence about impact, beyond the anecdotal.

Pearson says that the total operating costs for the five Federal tribunals is $90million per annum and at the state level cannot be easily assessed.

As Pearson says, we just don't know what happens within government agencies when tribunal decisions are handed down on matters that are relevant to ongoing administration. Do decision makers know about them, and do they translate any key points on interpretation of the law into practice when such issues again arise?

Anecdotal evidence in NSW at least is that Administrative Decisions Tribunal Freedom of Information and privacy decisions, and the guidance they offer on interpretation and application of the law are not well and widely known throughout the NSW public sector.

Then of course there is the related issue of what weight to attach to particular decisions in the light of the fact that there are significant inconsistencies in many tribunal judgments.

Many individuals obtain justice through tribunal consideration of their applications. Pearson is right to say that more work should be done to see what general effects such decisions have on decision makers.

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