First cabs off the rank: Appeals flowing from Kirk

Sam Witton writes:

Following the High Court decision of Kirk[1] handed down in early February, the return from the Easter break has witnessed hearings in the first of the cases seeking to redraw the accepted lines of occupational health and safety prosecutions in NSW.

Inspector Hamilton v John Holland Pty Ltd

On Tuesday 6 April 2010, the full bench of the NSW Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) sat to hear Inspector Hamilton v John Holland Pty Ltd. The case arises from John Holland’s involvement with the collapse of the Lane Cove tunnel on Sydney’s M2.

Tuesday’s hearing is the latest in a long running battle for the construction group. In a previous outing, John Holland (JH) argued before the High Court that the NSW IRC did not have jurisdiction on the grounds that JH had become a non-Commonwealth licensee[2] in the period after the alleged breach of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000 (NSW) (NSW OHS Act). The High Court ruled that for breaches committed by JH prior to it becoming a non-Commonwealth licensee the NSW IRC did indeed have jurisdiction.[3]

JH’s Senior Counsel, Garry Hatcher made submissions in the IRC this week that the charge against JH fails to meet the requirements set down by the High Court in Kirk in that the essential legal elements of the charge do not specify the measures that could have been taken by JH to ensure that they did not contravene the NSW OHS Act. In failing to include the measures that JH should have taken within the charge, Hatcher SC submitted that it was not possible for JH to plead to the charge as it did not have the requisite information to enable it to defend the charge.

Measures that the prosecutor WorkCover NSW stated should have been taken by JH had been included in the particulars of the charge.

Senior Counsel for the prosecutor, WorkCover NSW, John Agius submitted that the Kirk decision should be read as requiring the measures that the defendant could have taken to avoid a breach of the NSW OHS Act as being within the “statement of offence” taken as a whole. It was wrong, Agius SC submitted, to draw an artificial line between the charging provision and the particulars of the charge. The artificial line would have the charging provision sitting “above the line” with the particulars of the charge “below the line”. Agius SC submitted that so long as the measures that the defendant could have taken were contained within the particulars, the statement of the offences met the requirements laid down by the High Court in Kirk: that is, to identify the act or omission of the defendant and the measures that should have been taken but which were not taken by the defendant. Agius SC submitted that the statement of offence against JH exemplified the position that was to be taken post Kirk.

The bench has reserved its decision.

Morrison v Graham Anthony Chevalley; Morrison v Hilton Ross Grugeon

Perhaps more interestingly, on Thursday 8 April 2010, the full bench was summoned again to hear Morrison v Graham Anthony Chevalley; Morrison v Hilton Ross Grugeon. The defendants, directors of Hunter Quarries, submitted that the charges laid against them under section 26 of the NSW OHS Act failed to engage the jurisdiction of the NSW IRC in so far as the charge against them failed to specify the measures that could have been taken to avoid a breach of the NSW OHS Act. It was insufficient, Arthur Moses SC submitted, for the prosecution to be able to deem the contravention of the NSW OHS Act against the directors (as section 26 of the NSW OHS Act operates) unless the charge against the directors specified the measures that they could have taken in their capacity as directors to prevent the contravention of the NSW OHS Act.

The Court is due to resume on 9 April 2010 for submissions from the prosecutor in reply.

Both decisions will be eagerly awaited as the NSW IRC grapples to redefine the way in which charges brought by WorkCover NSW are drafted and attempts to apply the statement of principle enunciated in Kirk into a practical application in the NSW IRC.

[1] Kirk v Industrial Relations Commission; Kirk Group Holdings Pty Ltd v WorkCover Authority of New South Wales (Inspector Childs) [2010] HCA 1.

[2] See section 5 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 1991 (Cth).

[3] See John Holland Pty Ltd v Inspector Nathan Hamilton [2009] HCA 46.

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