Public interest immunity
Under the doctrine of ‘public interest immunity’, historically described as ‘Crown privilege’, the Executive Government may seek to claim immunity from requests or orders, by a court or by Parliament, for the production of documents on the grounds that public disclosure of the documents in question would be prejudicial to the public interest.
The approach taken by the courts in relation to claims of crown privilege or public interest immunity has developed over the years. The general view following the 1942 decision of the United Kingdom House of Lords in Duncan v. Cammell Laird & Co., was that if a Minister certified that it was contrary to the public interest for documents under subpoena to be produced, the certificate was conclusive and the courts would not go behind that certificate. This position was to some extent relaxed in 1968, when in Conway v. Rimmer the House of Lords held the Minister’s certificate was not conclusive in all cases, and that it was the court’s duty to balance the public interest as expressed by the Minister and the public interest in ensuring the proper administration of justice. Nevertheless, it was also held that there was a class of document such as Cabinet minutes and minutes of discussions between heads of departments which was entitled to Crown privilege and the court would not order disclosure of such documents, irrespective of their contents.
In the judgment of the High Court of Australia in Sankey v. Whitlam it was held that the public interest in the administration of justice outweighed any public interest in withholding documents which belonged to a class of documents which may be protected from disclosure irrespective of their contents. The court held that such documents should be inspected by the court which should then itself determine whether the public interest rendered their non-disclosure necessary. The court held that a claim of Crown privilege has no automatic operation; it always remains the function of the court to determine upon that claim. Accordingly a class claim supported by reference to the need to encourage candour on the part of public servants in their advice to Ministers was not a tenable claim of Crown privilege.
Subsequent court decisions have supported the principle that no class of document is entitled to absolute immunity from disclosure and that all cases may be resolved by the courts on the balance of the competing aspects of the public interest.
A court may consider that the competing public interests would best be served by the limited, rather than public, disclosure of documents for which immunity is claimed.
By the end of the 19th century each House of the United Kingdom Parliament was invested with the power of ordering all documents to be laid before it which were necessary for its information. Despite the powers of each House to enforce the production of documents, a sufficient cause had to be shown for the exercise of that power. This unquestioned power of the House of Commons is extended to the Australian Parliament by way of section 49 of the Constitution.
On a number of occasions questions have been raised as to the limits of the power of the Parliament in Australia to call for documents from the Executive, giving rise to conflict between public interest immunity and parliamentary privilege. These issues are most likely to arise in connection with parliamentary committee inquiries, and are covered in the Chapter on ‘Committees’. Because of the majority of government Members in the House, disputes over such matters between the Government and the House are less likely to arise and when they do, it is likely that a compromise may be reached, for example, by agreement to produce documents on a confidential basis.
The political situation has been different in the Senate, where the Government often has not had a majority. Instances where the government of the day has come into conflict with the Senate or a Senate committee over claims of executive privilege or public interest immunity are outlined in Odgers. In brief summary, it would seem that the Senate has not conceded its right to determine Executive claims of public interest immunity but, on the other hand, it has usually not taken steps to enforce production of documents when immunity has been claimed, ‘other than exacting a political penalty’. Ministers (including a Minister in the House) have been censured for contempt of the Senate for not responding to Senate orders to produce documents.
The powers of the New South Wales Legislative Council to order the production of executive government documents and to sanction a Minister for not complying with the order have been upheld by the New South Wales Court of Appeal and by the High Court. In a related case, the Court of Appeal further ruled that the Council’s power extended to the production of documents (Cabinet documents excepted) to which claims of legal professional privilege and public interest immunity could be made.
In 1972 the question of Crown privilege was given serious consideration by the Attorney-General (Senator Greenwood) and the Solicitor-General (Mr Ellicott) in a paper entitled ‘Parliamentary Committees—Powers over and protection afforded to witnesses’. In the paper the Law Officers expressed the view that the power of each House of the Australian Parliament to call for documents from the Executive is as wide as that of the 1901 House of Commons, whose power was, at least in theory, unlimited. The Law Officers believed that, because of the unlimited nature of this power, the extent to which it is used must necessarily rest on convention. Prior to the decision of the House of Lords in Conway v. Rimmer, the parliamentary practice of accepting as conclusive a certificate of a Minister regarding a claim of Crown privilege was consistent with the practice of the courts. Given the change in practice by the courts, the Law Officers raised the question as to whether the Parliament should accept as conclusive the certificate of a Minister or adopt a system similar to that adopted by the courts. The Law Officers were of the opinion that, given a parliamentary system based on party government and ministerial responsibility to the Parliament, the preferred course would be to continue the practice of treating a Minister’s certificate as conclusive. However, in an addendum to the report of the Senate Committee of Privileges on matters referred by Senate resolution of 17 July 1975, Senator Greenwood expressed the view that ‘The conclusiveness of the Minister’s certificate is for the Senate to determine’. The Senator also pointed out that where this view conflicted with that given by him earlier as Attorney-General in the paper referred to above he preferred the later view.
A substantial claim of Crown privilege was made by the Prime Minister and three other Ministers in 1975. In this instance public servants were summoned to the Bar of the Senate to answer questions and produce documents relating to certain government overseas loans negotiations. The Prime Minister and the other Ministers (the Minister for Minerals and Energy, the Treasurer and the Attorney-General) each wrote to the President of the Senate making a claim of privilege on the grounds that for departmental officers to answer questions and to produce documents, as required by the Senate resolution of 9 July 1975, would be detrimental to the proper functioning of the Public Service and its relationship to Government, and would be injurious to the public interest. The three Ministers wrote further to the President advising him that they had given instructions to their officers summoned to attend before the Senate, to the effect that, should the Senate reject the claim of Crown privilege, the officers were to decline to answer questions, except of a formal nature, and to decline to produce documents. The Solicitor-General, also summoned to the Bar of the Senate, wrote to the President pointing out that as the Crown had already made a claim of privilege he, as second Law Officer of the Crown, could not, consistent with his constitutional duty, intentionally act in opposition to the Crown’s claim. Therefore, he concluded, he must object to answering any questions relating to the Senate resolution of 9 July 1975. The Committee of Privileges, which was directed to inquire into the Crown’s claims of privilege, presented its report to the Senate on 7 October 1975. The report, agreed to by a majority—that is, by four government Senators—had no doubt that the directions given by the Ministers were valid and lawful directions. The dissenting report, by three opposition Senators, held the view that a Minister’s certificate of a claim of privilege was not conclusive; it was entitled to consideration, but the conclusiveness of the certificate was for the Senate to decide. The report of the committee was not considered by the Senate before both Houses of Parliament were dissolved on 11 November 1975.
The final report of the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege (1984) addressed these matters. The committee noted the trend in respect of court proceedings and considered it possible that an analogous evolution in thinking might develop in Parliament to help resolve cases where disputes arose between committees requesting information and Executives resisting their requests; however, it could not be presumed that this would happen. Observing that the Parliament had never conceded that any authority other than its Houses should be the ultimate judge of whether or not a document should be produced or information given, the committee rejected the adoption of any mechanism for the resolution of disputes over the production of executive documents which involved concessions to executive authority. The committee further reasoned that it was inherent in the different functions and interests of the Parliament and the Executive that there be areas of contention between them on such matters, that it was impossible to devise any means of eliminating contention between the two without one making major and unacceptable concessions to the other, and that adjudication by a third party would be acceptable to neither ‘in this quintessentially political field’. In effect, the committee’s conclusion was that matters should be allowed to stand as they were.
In 1994, following a dispute between the Government and a Senate select committee over the production of documents concerning Foreign Investment Review Board decisions, a private Senator introduced a bill giving the Federal Court the power to determine whether documents in dispute in such circumstances could be withheld from a House or committee on public interest grounds. The bill was referred to the Senate Privileges Committee, which recommended that the bill not be proceeded with and that claims of public interest immunity should continue to be dealt with by the House concerned. The House also referred the matter of the appropriateness of such legislation to its Privileges Committee. The committee concluded that the evidence available did not establish that it would be desirable for legislation to be enacted to transfer to the Court the responsibility to adjudicate in these matters.
In any consideration of this question it is important to bear in mind that, because different aspects of the public interest are involved—that is, the proper functioning of the Parliament as against the due administration of justice—the question of disclosure of documents to the Parliament is not the same question as disclosure of documents to the courts.