Seeing Migration Cases Through One Judge’s Spectacles

Justice Kenny 01 June 2008

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The migration jurisdiction of federal courts and tribunals is an important one, viewed from both the national and international perspectives.

Internationally, the migration of peoples is a matter of pressing importance. In 2005, there were an estimated 191 million migrants worldwide, of which 49.6% were women.[2] In 2006, there were 24.5 million internally displaced persons in at least 52 countries.[3] In 2006, the number of refugees worldwide was about 9.9 million. There were a further 4.3 million Palestinian refugees under the supervision of a UN agency.[4]

Historically, migration cases had been an important part of the work of the Federal Court. Partly, this is because there have been a lot of them. At a deeper level, however, they have a particular significance because their outcome has long term consequences for individuals and, ultimately, for the Australian and international community. Further, as Chief Justice Michael Black said recently, migration cases have had a lasting effect on the development of federal administrative law.[5]

In more than one sense, judicial discretion has been important in migration cases. This is so notwithstanding that, on the face of it, the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) does not provide much scope for judicial discretion as commonly understood, save perhaps in relation to the relief the Court may grant.

For example, a person claiming refugee status must satisfy the criteria set down in the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) and Migration Regulations 1994 (Cth), including that “the applicant … is a non-citizen in Australia to whom … Australia has protection obligations under the Refugees Convention”.[6] The existence or otherwise of this qualifying status is not a matter for a court. Instead, the legislation requires the Minister to grant the visa if “satisfied” that the criterion is fulfilled and to refuse the visa if not so satisfied. Typically, the Ministerial delegate makes this decision and, if it is adverse to the claimant, the claimant can seek decisional merits review in the Refugee Review Tribunal. Its counterpart for other migration decisions (for example, regarding student, partner and family visas) is the Migration Review Tribunal. If the reviewing tribunal makes a decision adverse to the visa applicant, the applicant fails in the visa application and, in consequence, is denied entry to Australia or denied permission to stay. To challenge this result, the refugee claimant (or other visa applicant) must show that the decision is relevantly invalid. In this way, a judicial review proceeding is born.

Judicial discretion does not, however, depend solely on the express conferral of discretionary power by statute. Judicial discretion occupies a much larger place than this in judicial decision-making. Broadly speaking, a discretionary exercise of power signifies an exercise of a power to choose to do or not to do something. The decision-maker has some autonomy in making this choice. What is distinctive about judicial discretion as opposed to other kinds of discretion is that it is exercised by judges. Because exercisable by judges, the occasions for discretion are controlled by the work judges do and the constraints inherent in their work, including the substantive law and the need to give valid reasons for the making of their decisions.

In migration cases, there are at least three obvious areas for judicial discretion. The first is where the judge is required to make a decision in the exercise of a power conferred by statute or general law, according to relatively few fixed rules, such as, for example, the discretion as to relief[7] or as to costs. In daily usage, reference to this kind of judicial discretion is common-place. It does not follow, however, that the concept of judicial discretion is restricted to what is common-place. There is a second area of discretion. This is where the legal principles are open-textured or incomplete and, in the circumstances of the case, their application is unclear. This is perhaps an aspect of HLA Hart’s argument that, when a judge deciding a case finds the legal rules unclear or incomplete, then the judge must exercise a discretion about settling the meaning or filling the gap.[8] The third area is where changes in the extrinsic legally-relevant circumstances may call for a reformulation of legal principles to take account of these circumstances.

I put aside the third area on this occasion. I am concerned here with the second and, to a lesser extent, the first areas. The recent history of migration cases in federal jurisdiction focuses on the legitimacy of judicial discretion in the second area.

Over recent years, the development of migration law in the Federal Court has been in part a chronicle of the Executive and the Parliament seeking, through legislative action, to diminish the scope for judicial decision-making in migration cases, by making the legal rules fixed and apparently certain, and by diminishing the grounds for judicial intervention in migration decisions at the administrative level.

Part of the explanation for this phenomenon lies in previous judicial decision-making in migration cases. There was, however, little in the judges’ stated position about their relationship to the administration that should have troubled the other arms of government.

Until 1994, migration cases were generally brought under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977 (Cth). As under the general law concerning prerogative writs, the Judicial Review Act contemplated a universe divided between the merits of the decision and the lawfulness of the process by which the decision was made. Under the Judicial Review Act regime, the courts emphasized that they had no business with the rights and wrongs of a decision. That was the province of the administrative arm of government. The judges’ focus was on the lawfulness of the administrative decision. In the decade prior to 1994, however, some parts of government grew skeptical about the judges’ claims to stay only within the four corners of the law in reviewing migration cases. The legislative response to this growing skepticism indicated that Parliament and the Executive identified the scope of judicial discretion as a source of the difficulty. The reason why they saw this as a problem related to the development of the law under the Judicial Review Act.

The Judicial Review Act gave the Federal Court well-recognized discretions with respect to remedies. Under the Act,[9] the Federal Court was able to set aside a decision; refer the matter to the decision-maker for further consideration with such directions as it thought fit; declare the rights of the parties in respect of any matter to which the decision related; and direct the parties to do or refrain from doing something which the Court considered necessary to do justice between the parties; and, when appropriate, direct that a decision be made. Generally speaking, however, the exercise of these powers did not attract any persistent criticism.

Apart from this, however, the grounds for review of decisions were broad,[10] including breach of the rules of natural justice and a larger category – improper exercise of power – into which fitted such grounds as irrelevant and relevant consideration, bad faith, and unreasonableness. The application of these grounds for review depended very much on broadly-stated, open-textured principles. Contention focused on the application of these grounds of review, informed as they were by principles of this kind.

A number of these principles can be readily identified, including what I would term a “practical fairness” principle or “a fair play in action”. This can be unpacked to disclose a number of other principles. The rationality principle may be one of them, or it may be a separate principle. In any event, a principle of rationality informed the unreasonableness ground, as well as relevant and irrelevant considerations grounds. Another principle, which Galligan described as “purposiveness”, required that any discretionary power be exercised for the purpose for which it was conferred and not for some extrinsic purpose of the decision-maker. There was also the relationship principle, essentially constitutional in nature, which emphasized that the efficacy of administrative action depended on compliance with express and implied statutory constraints and that the judiciary’s only role was to ensure that administrators did not exceed their statutory authority. In Australian Broadcasting Tribunal v Bond,[11] Chief Justice Mason relied on this principle in describing the dichotomy between administrative fact-finding and judicial review, saying:[12]

The expression “judicial review”, when applied to the traditional review functions of the superior courts in our system of justice, exercisable by means of the prerogative writs and the grant of declaratory relief and injunction, ordinarily does not extend to findings of fact as such. To expose all findings of fact, or the generality of them, to judicial review would expose the steps in administrative decision-making to comprehensive review by the courts and thus bring about a radical change in the relationship between the executive and judicial branches of government.

Though not a migration case, ABT v Bond was brought under the Judicial Review Act. In applying the statutory grounds of review in migration cases under the Judicial Review Act regime, judges were bound to make choices by reference to these and other open-textured principles. This left them significant scope for autonomous choice.

The seminal case of Kioa v West[13] is illustrative of these general propositions. Mr Kioa, who was a Tongan citizen facing deportation, put his case against deportation at a departmental interview and in written submissions. These submissions stated that he had been active in providing support for other Tongans, noting that “only recently [he] was in discussion with [the] department concerning the difficulties of illegal immigrants from Tonga”.[14] A subsequent departmental briefing paper prepared for the Minister referred to this remark and added “Mr Kioa’s alleged concern for other Tongan illegal immigrants in Australia and his active involvement with other persons who are seeking to circumvent Australia’s immigration laws must be a source of concern”.[15] In the High Court, this remark was variously described by the majority as “extremely prejudicial”,[16] “clearly prejudicial”,[17] and “credible, relevant and damaging”.[18] Since Mr Kioa had not had an opportunity to rebut it, there was, so the Court held, a breach of natural justice.

In so deciding, the Court determined to overrule an earlier decision[19] and to hold that, by reason of the relevant statutory regime, the rules of natural justice applied to deportation decisions. This part of the decision involved aspects of the “purposiveness” and “relationship” principle, referred to earlier. Having done this, the Court had a choice as to whether or not the decision-maker should be required to afford Mr Kioa an opportunity to deal with the remark. This choice depended essentially on the judges’ perceptions about the importance and engagement of the fairness principle – a matter emphasized in the dissent of Chief Justice Gibbs, who held that the contested remark was simply the officer’s comment on material put before the department by Mr Kioa and his solicitor and reflected government policy.[20]

In the decade following Kioa v West there was a dramatic increase in the numbers of migration cases in the courts, with judges ordinarily deciding them by reference to the same or similarly open-textured principles.

In 1994, the regime established by the Judicial Review Act ceased to apply to migration cases. Instead, the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) was amended to provide a particular regime for their judicial consideration.[21] Section 476, as it stood at this time, set out the grounds for judicial review in migration cases that were apparently more limited than those ordinarily available on judicial review. Ultimately, the amendments had very limited success in curtailing review, since s 476 acknowledged that the administrative decision-makers were unable to exceed the authority that the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) had conferred on them. In Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs v Yusuf [22] the High Court elaborated on what it meant to exceed statutory authority, by reference to the general law concept of jurisdictional error as explained in the earlier decision of Craig v South Australia.[23] Jurisdictional error was established, so the joint judgment explained, where an administrative decision-maker identified a wrong issue, asked a wrong question, ignored relevant material or relied on irrelevant material, evidencing a misunderstanding of the law or a failure to correctly apply the law, with the result that the administrator made a decision that he or she was not authorized to make.[24] It followed from this that, fundamentally at least, the relationship between the judiciary and the executive, as Craig had affirmed for the general law, was largely unimpaired by the 1994 amendments.

Yusuf might have closed this chapter on the history of judicial migration case review but it did not. There were further legislative amendments in 2001 designed to remove, or at least significantly diminish, judicial discretion in such cases.

In an article published in 2000, Justice Sackville explored the reasons for the tensions between the courts, the Executive and the Parliament, which prompted the legislative responses in 1994 and subsequently.[25] He considered that “[t]he starting point” was “that the perspective of the courts is necessarily different from that of the Executive government and, indeed, Parliament”,[26] but he added various other factors to the mix, including the comparative novelty of judicial review of migration cases, the sensitivity of migration issues, the intrusion of the Refugees Convention, and the tendency to seek to undo “unexpected or unwelcome” decisions by legislative amendment.[27] To date, there has been no real advance on his analysis, which identified the sources of difficulty beyond the judges’ legal method. Part of the difficulty also probably lay in the way judges were understood to make decisions.

The further amendments in 2001 made it plain that the Executive and the Parliament were not willing to accept that the supervisory function of the courts should continue to be informed by open-textured principles that Yusuf had restored.[28] As I have said, an amount of judicial discretion was inherent in the application of these principles. Writing in 1997, the then Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Philip Ruddock, said that, amongst other things, the amendments were designed to stop federal judges “incorporat[ing] common law grounds of review back into decisions … despite the clear intentions of the Act”.[29]

Others have described the effects of these amendments.[30] The major change was the introduction of an ouster or privative clause into the Migration Act 1958 (Cth), by amendment to s 474. Section 474 stated that a privative clause decision was “final and conclusive” and therefore unable to be challenged, whether by way of prerogative writ or otherwise. Privative clause decisions were any decisions of an administrative character made under the Migration Act 1958 (Cth).

The federal judges’ responses to this legislative stipulation were confused but, speaking generally, the clause was effective, for a time, in diminishing, if not precluding, judicial review in all but the most extreme case. This was until the decision in Plaintiff S157/2002 v The Commonwealth,[31] which has tended to restore the traditional equilibrium that the statutory amendments had put in jeopardy.

Plaintiff S157 held that s 474 did not prevent judicial review of decisions that involved jurisdictional error, because decisions of this kind were not “privative clause decisions” since they were not decisions made “under” the Migration Act 1958 (Cth).[32] In reaching this conclusion, the majority referred to two principles. The most significant was that a privative clause was to be construed conformably with the Constitution if that were possible. If s 474 were to be construed conformably with s 75 of the Australian Constitution, then the reference to decisions “under” the Act had to be read so as to refer only to decisions that involved no jurisdictional error.[33]

The result is that the traditional dichotomy between merits and legality review remains very largely intact. A federal court will not intervene merely because the administrative decision-maker makes some factual error. Hence the administrative tribunals are left to determine whether the evidence is credible, reliable and entitled to any, and if so, what weight. In this fact-finding process, administrative bodies inevitably make discretionary judgments, with which generally judges are not concerned. Even here, though, there are exceptions, as for example, where there is error in jurisdictional fact-finding. Here too there is room for judicial discretion of a kind.

For example, in the recent case of Minister for Immigration and Citizenship v Zaouk [34] a Full Court of the Federal Court was required to decide whether the tribunal had correctly introduced a marriage relationship criterion when no such criterion expressly appeared in clause 820.211(8)(c) of the Migration Regulations 1994 (Cth). With limited exceptions, spouse visa applications involve a two-stage process. The grant of a provisional spouse visa is followed by a permanent spouse visa after a two-year period. This two-stage process is designed to deter people from marrying simply in order to enter Australia. A permanent spouse visa is not available if the relationship ceases before the required time unless, amongst other things, the relationship ceases on account of domestic violence committed by the sponsor against the sponsored spouse. These requirements are apparently designed, amongst other things, to protect the victims of domestic violence.

Mr Zaouk, a Lebanese national, entered Australia as the holder of a prospective marriage visa, sponsored by his fiancÉe. Shortly after the couple married, Mr Zaouk alleged marital violence on the part of his wife. The couple separated. Mr Zaouk unsuccessfully applied for a spouse visa, invoking the domestic violence provisions. In affirming the primary decision-maker, the Migration Review Tribunal held that the relationship that ceased must have been a genuine spousal relationship, within the meaning of reg 1.15A of the Migration Regulations 1994 (Cth). On review, the Federal Magistrates Court held that this was wrong and set aside the decision. On appeal from this judgment, the Full Court of the Federal Court discussed the spouse visa criteria and their purpose. The Court concluded that it was “evident … that the underlying policy … is to tie the award of this visa to persons who are, or, exceptionally, who have been, in spousal relationships having the qualities identified in reg 1.15 [sic]”.[35]

At least one author has disagreed. In a recent article in the Law Society Journal,[36] Chris Yuen argued that the “ordinary reading of the [relevant provision] does not warrant the decision-maker to carry out a detailed examination of the existence of the prior relationship” but “merely requires that the relationship has ceased”.[37] He contended that the provision presupposes a relationship that existed by virtue of the grant of prospective marriage visa and subsequent marriage. This was, so he said, supportable on policy grounds, arguing that ‘[i]f domestic violence victims are required to satisfy a relationship test in relation to the period just before separation, it would only encourage victims to procrastinate in taking proper action”.[38] He noted that “[w]hether domestic violence had in fact occurred is a matter which will be subject to rigorous separate tests” and that “[i]t is not uncommon that allegations would be made against the visa applicant as to the true nature of the relationship when domestic violence is involved”.[39]

It is not my place here to express a view about the Full Court’s judgment or Mr Yuen’s comments. Mr Yuen’s is a thoughtful article, even if the conclusions he reached in it are contrary to the Full Court’s. His analysis is useful for my purposes, however, because it shows that, even when jurisdictional facts are in issue, judges must exercise discretion in determining whether, and to what extent, they will fill a gap left by governing legislation. His analysis also highlights the nature of the judges’ choices.

Whenever a court makes a finding of jurisdictional error, there is almost always an exercise of judicial discretion in making the finding. This is because the courts are required to make choices, informed by broad overarching principles, as to whether or not these principles should be applied so as to invalidate the administrative decision under scrutiny. The recent history of migration cases in federal courts shows that this kind of judicial discretion is not only important, it is also essential if the courts are to discharge their constitutional function. This function is to ensure that the decisions of the Executive are made within and under the law. This is an aspect of the constitutional rule of law mandate.

As it happens, the attempt to deprive judges of the discretion inherent in their traditional supervisory role has largely failed. Judges continue to assess the legality of migration decisions at the administrative level and make choices by reference to open-textured legal principles and legal values. These principles and values form part of Australia’s contemporary constitutional fabric.

The history of open disagreements between the federal courts on the one hand and the Parliament and the Executive on the other regarding judicial review in migration cases have not been fruitful. Judges have been preoccupied with legislation that has proceeded in part on the unwarranted assumption that somehow the courts had no business in the supervision of migration decisions made by administrative bodies. Too much judicial intelligence has been spent on simply preserving the rule of law in this area. Too much executive and legislative effort has been wasted in seeking to undo a constitutional imperative. The result is that in this area, Australian administrative law has become somewhat of a museum piece: it continues to depend for its efficacy on the outdated and inadequate notion of “jurisdictional error”. Australian federal courts have not been able to develop conceptual tools that better suit contemporary life. In particular, they have not been able to explore and better formulate the principles that should inform judicial judgment in judicial review cases. In this regard, they have not kept pace with the rest of the common law world. If the immediate past history is a guide, however, the better development of this area of the law depends as much on the Parliamentary will (as, for example, expressed in a Charter of Rights) as upon the courts.[40]

[1] Justice Susan Kenny, BA (Hons); LLB (Hons) (Melb); D Phil (Oxon), is a judge of the Federal Court of Australia.

[2] United Nations’ Trends in Total Migrant Stock: The 2005 revision, http:/

[3] Norwegian Refugee Council – Internal Displacement Monitoring Center’s Internal Displacement: global overview of trends and developments in 2005, .

[4] The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

[5] The Hon Chief Justice Michael Black AC, “The Federal Court of Australia: The First 30 Years – A Survey on the Occasion of Two Anniversaries” (2007) 31 MULR 1017 at 1035.

[6] Section 36(2)(a).

[7] Whether or not the Federal Court or the Federal Magistrates Court grant relief pursuant to s 39B of the Judiciary Act 1903 (Cth) is of course a matter for the exercise of one kind of judicial discretion. See, e.g., Re Refugee Review Tribunal; Ex parte Aala (2000) 204 CLR 82 at 107-108 per Gaudron and Gummow JJ; SZBYR v Minister for Immigration and Citizenship (2007) 235 ALR 609 at 618 per Gleeson CJ, Gummow, Callinan, Heydon and Crennan JJ, 623 per Kirby J and 631 per Hayne J.

[8] DJ Galligan, Discretionary Powers: A Legal Study of Official Discretion (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986), p 37-38.

[9] Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977 (Cth), s 16.

[10] Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977 (Cth), s 5.

[11] (1990) 170 CLR 321.

[12] Ibid 341.

[13] (1985) 159 CLR 550.

[14] Ibid 556.

[15] Ibid 557.

[16] Ibid 588 per Mason J.

[17] Ibid 602 per Wilson J.

[18] Ibid 629 per Brennan J.

[19] MacKellar; Ex parte Ratu (1977) 137 CLR 461.

[20] (1985) 159 CLR 550 at 568.

[21] In 1994, the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) was amended by the Migration Reform Act 1992 (Cth), s 33; but the commencement of this legislation was deferred to 1 September 1994 by operation of the Migration Laws Amendment Act 1993 (Cth), s 5.

[22] (2001) 206 CLR 323.

[23] (1995) 184 CLR 163 at 179.

[24] (2001) 206 CLR 323 at 351-352 per McHugh, Gummow and Hayne JJ, Gleeson CJ agreeing.

[25] The Hon Justice Ronald Sackville, “Judicial Review of Migration Decisions: An Institution in Peril?” (2000) 23 UNSWLJ 190.

[26] Ibid 202.

[27] Ibid 202-207.

[28] Migration Legislation Amendment (Judicial Review) Act 2001 (Cth).

[29] The Hon Philip Ruddock MP, “Narrowing of Judicial Review in the Migration Context” (1997) 15 AIAL Forum 13 at 17.

[30] E.g., The Hon Duncan Kerr SC MP, “Privative Clauses and the Courts: why and how Australian Courts have resisted attempts to remove the citizen’s right to judicial review of unlawful executive action” (2005) 5 QUTLJJ 195; Sarah Ford, “Judicial Review of Migration Decisions: Ousting the Hickman Privative Clause?” (2002) 26 MULR 537.

[31] (2003) 211 CLR 476.

[32] Ibid, 506-507 and 511 per Gaudron, McHugh, Gummow, Kirby and Hayne JJ.

[33] Ibid 506. The second principle was that Parliament should be presumed not to intend to cut down the courts’ jurisdiction save to the extent that the legislation required it expressly or by necessary implication: ibid 505.

[34] (2007) 159 FCR 152; [2007] FCAFC 47

[35] At [16] per Moore, Finn and Marshall JJ.

[36] Chris Yuen, “Determining Jurisdictional Fact” (2007) 45 Law Society Journal 76.

[37] Ibid 77.

[38] Ibid 78.

[39] Ibid.

[40] The conclusion of this paper is the author’s response to exchanges with The Rt Hon Dame Sian Elias, GNZM, and Pamela Tate, SC, in the session in which this paper was delivered. The author wishes to acknowledge, and thank them for, their insightful contributions.