The High Court of Australia delivered its judgment in Plaintiff M68/2015 v Minister for Immigration and Border Protection on 3 February 2016. The primary issues raised in the case related to whether the plaintiff’s detention at Nauru was authorised by a valid law of the Commonwealth, insofar as it was a valid exercise of executive power under section 61 of the Constitution of Australia. However, the case also raised questions of private international law in relation to the laws and Constitution of Nauru. This article will focus on these questions.
The plaintiff was a Bangladeshi national who arrived in Australia as an ‘unauthorised maritime arrival’ (UMA) under s 5AA of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) (the Act). She was detained and taken to Nauru on 22 January 2014 pending the resolution of her claim for refugee status pursuant to s 198AD(2) of the Act.
Upon arrival in Nauru, the plaintiff was granted a Regional Processing Centre visa (RPC visa). Pursuant to regulation 9(6)(a) of the Immigration Regulations 2013 (Nauru) (the Regulations), the plaintiff’s RPC visa specified that the plaintiff must reside at the Nauru Regional Processing Centre. As the plaintiff was a UMA taken to Nauru under section 198AD of the Act, the plaintiff was a ‘protected person’ under the Asylum Seekers (Regional Processing Centre) Act 2012 (Nauru) (RPC Act). Under section 18(1) of the RPC Act, a protected person was not to leave the Centre without permission, and any protected person who attempted to do so committed an offence.
The Commonwealth submitted that its participation in the plaintiff’s detention was authorised by section 198AHA of the Act. That section applies when the Commonwealth enters into an arrangement in relation to the regional processing functions of a country, and provides that the Commonwealth may take any action in relation to the arrangement. Section 198AHA(5) defines ‘regional processing functions’ to include ‘the implementation of any law… by a country in connection with the role of the country as a regional processing country’.
Questions of law
The parties agreed on a number of questions for the consideration of the Court. The questions of present relevance are:
Were the laws by which the plaintiff was detained on Nauru contrary to the Constitution of Nauru?
If the plaintiff were returned to Nauru, would her detention there be contrary to [a]rt 5(1) of the Constitution of Nauru?
Article 5(1) of the Constitution of Nauru provides relevantly:
No person shall be deprived of his personal liberty, except as authorised by law in any of the following cases:
(h) for the purpose of preventing his unlawful entry into Nauru, or for the purpose of effecting his expulsion, extradition or other lawful removal from Nauru.
The plaintiff submitted that the RPC Act did not fall within the terms of article 5(1)(h) of the Constitution of Nauru because the detention was not ‘for the purpose of effecting… expulsion… or other lawful removal from Nauru’. The plaintiff further submitted that, for this reason, section 198AHA of the Act did not authorise the Commonwealth’s participation in her detention, as the regional processing functions of a country only include the implementation of laws that were lawful under the constitution of the regional processing country, thereby meaning section 198AHA did not apply to the arrangement between the Commonwealth and Nauru.
As identified by French CJ, Kiefel and Nettle JJ (at ), the questions and submissions raised the question of whether an Australian court should express a view as to the constitutionality of foreign legislation. French CJ, Kiefel and Nettle JJ — with whom Bell J agreed (at ) — found that while there may be some cases where an Australian court must make conclusions as to the legality of another country’s conduct under its own laws, such cases are rare and this was not one. Their Honours found that the plaintiff’s case concerned the Commonwealth’s conduct, and whether this was authorised by a law of the Commonwealth. Consequently, the Commonwealth’s defence did not require any consideration of the validity of the laws of Nauru (at –). Gageler and Gordon JJ came to similar conclusions (see  and  respectively).
Keane J considered in greater depth the questions and submissions put in relation to the laws of Nauru, and the construction of section 198AHA of the Act. His Honour quoted a passage of the majority of the High Court in Attorney-General (United Kingdom) v Heinemann Publishers Australia Pty Ltd (1988) 165 CLR 30 (the ‘Spycatcher case’), adopting the dictum of Fuller CJ in Underhill v Hernandez 168 US 250 (1897) (‘Underhill’) that, generally, ‘courts will not adjudicate upon the validity of acts and transactions of a foreign sovereign State within that sovereign’s own territory’. In the passage, their Honours also state that the principle rests partly on ‘international comity and expediency’ and is a principle of ‘judicial restraint or abstention’, ‘inherent in the very nature of the judicial process’.
His Honour then turned to consider the more recent Moti v The Queen (2011) 254 CLR 456 (‘Moti’). In that case, an accused was deported from the Solomon Islands to Australia. Commonwealth officials supplied the necessary travel documents knowing that the documents would be used to deport the accused in circumstances that were unlawful under the laws of the Solomon Islands. It was necessary for the High Court to determine whether the deportation was unlawful in considering whether to stay the prosecution of the charges against the accused on the ground of abuse of process. His Honour distinguished the present case on the ground that it was not necessary to determine the validity of the Nauruan legislation to resolve the interpretation of section 198AHA of the Act (at ).
The principle articulated by their Honours in the Spycatcher case is commonly referred to as the ‘act of state’ doctrine, although that term has been criticised as being ‘vague and unsatisfactory’: Potter v Broken Hill Company Pty Ltd  HCA 88 (O’Connor J) (‘Potter’). It is clear that an act of state encompasses the passage of legislation: Lucasfilm Ltd v Ainsworth  UKSC 39 at . The present case affirms this.
The High Court’s consideration of the doctrine in the present case sits squarely with examinations of principle following the Underhill decision. In Underhill, Fuller CJ expressed the principle in absolute and universal terms. However, it has since been recognised that courts may consider the legality of foreign governments in exceptional circumstances. In earlier decisions, such as Potter, the High Court expressed the exception in terms of whether the legality of the acts of the foreign country arose incidentally to the main issue(s) in the action. In more recent decisions, such as Moti, the exception has been expressed in terms of whether the court needed to come to a conclusion as to the legality of the conduct as a necessary step towards the ultimate decision (at ). French CJ, Kiefel and Nettle JJ adopted this expression of the exception in the present case (at ).
The result of the High Court’s decision is that the lawfulness of the Nauruan legislation remains to be tested. It should be noted that, however, following the hearing of the matter, regulation 9(6)(a) of the Regulations, which restricted the movement of RPC visa holders, was repealed, and an amended section 18C was inserted into the RPC Act establishing an ‘open centre’ allowing asylum seekers to move freely in and out of the centre 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These changes may be critical to any future analysis of the validity of the legislation.
Esther Pearson is Assistant Editor of the ILA Reporter.