...The power of the High Court to determine the common law...
The High Court has the power and responsibility for determining the common law of Australia. In doing this, the Court may have regard to previous decisions of the High Court itself, as well as seeking guidance from international law and comparative law from other common law countries such as Britain, the United States, Canada, and New Zealand. In Mabo v Queensland [No.2] (1992) 175 CLR 1, at 29-30, Brennan J explained the balance:
'Here rests the ultimate responsibility of declaring the law of the nation. Although this Court is free to depart from English precedent which was earlier followed as stating the common law of this country, it cannot do so where the departure would fracture what I have called the skeleton of principle. The Court is even more reluctant to depart from earlier decisions of its own. The peace and order of Australian society is built on the legal system. It can be modified to bring it into conformity with contemporary notions of justice and human rights, but it cannot be destroyed. It is not possible, a priori, to distinguish between cases that express a skeletal principle and those which do not, but no case can command unquestioning adherence if the rule it expresses seriously offends the values of justice and human rights (especially equality before the law) which are aspirations of the contemporary Australian legal system. If a postulated rule of the common law expressed in earlier cases seriously offends those contemporary values, the question arises whether the rule should be maintained and applied. Whenever such a question arises, it is necessary to assess whether the particular rule is an essential doctrine of our legal system and whether, if the rule were to be overturned, the disturbance to be apprehended would be disproportionate to the benefit flowing from the overturning.'
Keywords: Brennan, Justice Gerard, Britain, Canada, High Court of Australia, International law, Mabo judgement, Mabo v Queensland No.2, New Zealand (Aotearoa), United States of America, 1992
(1992) 175 CLR 1.
Author: Strelein, Lisa