Laws v Australian Broadcasting Tribunal

Reference: (1990) 170 CLR 70

Court: High Court of Australia

Judge: Mason CJ, Brennan, Deane, Gaudron & McHugh JJ

Date of judgment: 7 Feb 1990

Summary: Broadcasting - Radio programme standards - Apprehended bias - Disqualification of Tribunal members


The case arose out of radio broadcasts made in March 1987 by Mr Laws on his Australian talk-back programme. The broadcasts reached a wide audience throughout Australia over that and other stations. In the broadcasts, Mr Laws criticised certain expenditure by the Commonwealth Government of Aboriginal welfare. Mr Laws’ comments generated complaints from a number of sources, including the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and the Aboriginal Legal Service. These complaints were made to the respondent Tribunal which was charged with the responsibility of determining the standards to be observed by licensees of commercial radio stations in respect of the broadcasting of programmes.


Whether the Tribunal can hold an inquiry into the proposed exercise of its substantive powers in relation to the alleged contravention by Mr Laws of one of the radio programme standards prescribed by the Tribunal and if so, whether any or all of its members would be precluded from participating in that inquiry by reason of actual or apprehended bias.


Mr Laws was not entitled to an order restraining the Tribunal from holding an inquiry, but was entitled to an order restraining the Tribunal from holding such an inquiry if its composition included the 2 members who had adjudicated upon an earlier preliminary inquiry.


Whatever the precise scope of the doctrine of necessity in the natural justice context, it seemed to the court contrary to all principles of fairness that, on the ground of necessity, a person should have to submit to a decision made by a person who had already prejudged the issue.