The Applicant Must Know The Case
TABLE OF CONTENTS
In SZBEL v MIMIA  HCA 63 (15.12.06), the High Court examined the difficult issue of the RRT member remaining silent during a hearing and then deciding the matter adverse to an applicant on issues not raised during the hearing. Because it is the High Court’s most recent pronouncement on natural justice, it is worth examining this case in some detail.
The case concerned an Iranian Christian who had jumped ship and said he feared for his safety because the captain of his ship knew of his interest in the Christian religion.
In a joint (& therefore unanimous) judgment, Gleeson CJ, Kirby, Hayne, Callinan & Heydon JJ noted:
3… At no stage did the Tribunal challenge what the appellant said, express any reaction to what he said, or invite him to amplify any of the three particular aspects of the account he had given in his statutory declaration, and repeated in his evidence, which the Tribunal later found to be “implausible”. Rather, the first that the appellant knew of the suggestion that his account of events was implausible in these three respects was when the Tribunal published its decision.
In rejecting the protection visa application, the delegate concluded that he was not satisfied that the appellant “has a genuine commitment to Christianity”.
The High Court observed that the Migration Act obliged the Tribunal to “invite the applicant to appear before the Tribunal to give evidence and present arguments relating to the issues arising in relation to the decision under review” (s. 425(1)), although it was not bound to extend such an invitation to appear, if it considered that “it should decide the review in the applicant’s favour on the basis of the material before it” (s 425(2)(a).)
Firstly the High Court (at para 32) endorsed what the Full Federal Court said in Cmmr for ACT Territory Revenue v Alphaone (1994) 49 FCR 576:
“It is a fundamental principle that where the rules of procedural fairness apply to a decision-making process, the party liable to be directly affected by the decision is to be given the opportunity of being heard. That would ordinarily require the party affected to be given the opportunity of ascertaining the relevant issues and to be informed of the nature and content of adverse material.” (emphasis added)
Here is what the High Court concluded (para’s 35-43):
The Tribunal is not confined to whatever may have been the issues that the delegate considered. The issues that arise in relation to the decision are to be identified by the Tribunal. But if the Tribunal takes no step to identify some issue other than those that the delegate considered dispositive, and does not tell the applicant what that other issue is, the applicant is entitled to assume that the issues the delegate considered dispositive are “the issues arising in relation to the decision under review”. That is why the point at which to begin the identification of issues arising in relation to the decision under review will usually be the reasons given for that decision. And unless some other additional issues are identified by the Tribunal (as they may be), it would ordinarily follow that, on review by the Tribunal, the issues arising in relation to the decision under review would be those which the original decision-maker identified as determinative against the applicant.
It is also important to recognise that the invitation to an applicant to appear before the Tribunal to give evidence and make submissions is an invitation that need not be extended if the Tribunal considers that it should decide the review in the applicant’s favour. Ordinarily then, as was the case here, the Tribunal will begin its interview of an applicant who has accepted the Tribunal’s invitation to appear, knowing that it is not persuaded by the material already before it to decide the review in the applicant’s favour. That lack of persuasion may be based on particular questions the Tribunal has about specific aspects of the material already before it; it may be based on nothing more particular than a general unease about the veracity of what is revealed in that material. But unless the Tribunal tells the applicant something different, the applicant would be entitled to assume that the reasons given by the delegate for refusing to grant the application will identify the issues that arise in relation to that decision.
That this is the consequence of the statutory scheme can be illustrated by taking a simple example. Suppose (as was the case here) the delegate concludes that the applicant for a protection visa is a national of a particular country (here, Iran). Absent any warning to the contrary from the Tribunal, there would be no issue in the Tribunal about nationality that could be described as an issue arising in relation to the decision under review. If the Tribunal invited the applicant to appear, said nothing about any possible doubt about the applicant’s nationality, and then decided the review on the basis that the applicant was not a national of the country claimed, there would not have been compliance with s 425(1); the applicant would not have been accorded procedural fairness.
When it is said, in the present matter, that the appellant was not put on notice by the Tribunal that his account of certain events would be rejected as “implausible”, and that this conclusion was “not obviously … open on the known material”, the focus of the contention must fall upon what was “obviously … open” in the Tribunal’s review. That can be identified only by having regard to “the issues arising in relation to the decision under review”. It is those issues which will determine whether rejection of critical aspects of an applicant’s account of events was “obviously … open on the known material”.
If the issues on the review of the delegate’s decision by the Tribunal are identified no more particularly than by the question “is the applicant entitled to a protection visa?”, rejection of some, or all, aspects of his account of the past events said to found his fears of persecution would self-evidently be a conclusion open to the Tribunal. The conclusion would be open because every aspect of the applicant’s claim would be in issue in the Tribunal’s review of the delegate’s decision. But if the issues are to be identified more particularly, other questions arise.
More than once it has been said that the proceedings in the Tribunal are not adversarial but inquisitorial in their general character. There is no joinder of issues between parties, and it is for the applicant for a protection visa to establish the claims that are made. As the Tribunal recorded in its reasons in this matter, however, that does not mean that it is useful to speak in terms of onus of proof. And although there is no joinder of issues, the Act assumes that issues can be identified as arising in relation to the decision under review. While those issues may extend to any and every aspect of an applicant’s claim to a protection visa, they need not. If it had been intended that the Tribunal should consider afresh, in every case, all possible issues presented by an applicant’s claim, it would not be apt for the Act to describe the Tribunal’s task as conducting a “review”, and it would not be apt to speak, as the Actdoes, of the issues that arise in relation to the decision under review.
The appellant’s complaint in the present matter can be expressed in different ways. It could be described as being that the Tribunal acted upon unstated assumptions about the nature of Iranian society, when it decided that three aspects of his account were implausible. So, to take one of the three critical issues, when the Tribunal concluded (as it did) that it was implausible that what was said in a conversation between friends over coffee would come to the attention of a fellow member of the appellant’s crew and thus be conveyed to the ship’s captain, the Tribunal assumed that matters of religious interest would not ordinarily be the subject of gossip in a town in such a way as to come to the attention of a fellow crew member. The appellant says that he had no notice that the validity or content of the cultural and other assumptions that underpinned his account were in issue.
But closer examination reveals that the appellant’s complaint is more deep-seated than a complaint about the making of unstated cultural assumptions. It is that he was not on notice that his account of how his ship’s captain came to know of his interest in Christianity, and his account of the captain’s reaction to that knowledge, were issues arising in relation to the decision under review.
The delegate had not based his decision on either of these aspects of the matter. Nothing in the delegate’s reasons for decision indicated that these aspects of his account were in issue. And the Tribunal did not identify these aspects of his account as important issues. The Tribunal did not challenge what the appellant said. It did not say anything to him that would have revealed to him that these were live issues. Based on what the delegate had decided, the appellant would, and should, have understood the central and determinative question on the review to be the nature and extent of his Christian commitment. Nothing the Tribunal said or did added to the issues that arose on the review.
Finally judges added (para’s 46-49):
Three further general points should be made.
First, there may well be cases, perhaps many cases, where either the delegate’s decision, or the Tribunal’s statements or questions during a hearing, sufficiently indicate to an applicant that everything he or she says in support of the application is in issue. That indication may be given in many ways. It is not necessary (and often would be inappropriate) for the Tribunal to put to an applicant, in so many words, that he or she is lying, that he or she may not be accepted as a witness of truth, or that he or she may be thought to be embellishing the account that is given of certain events. The proceedings are not adversarial and the Tribunal is not, and is not to adopt the position of, a contradictor. But where, as here, there are specific aspects of an applicant’s account, that the Tribunal considers may be important to the decision and may be open to doubt, the Tribunal must at least ask the applicant to expand upon those aspects of the account and ask the applicant to explain why the account should be accepted.
Secondly, as Lord Diplock said in F Hoffmann-La Roche & Co AG v Secretary of State for Trade and Industry:
“the rules of natural justice do not require the decision maker to disclose what he is minded to decide so that the parties may have a further opportunity of criticising his mental processes before he reaches a final decision. If this were a rule of natural justice only the most talkative of judges would satisfy it and trial by jury would have to be abolished.”
Procedural fairness does not require the Tribunal to give an applicant a running commentary upon what it thinks about the evidence that is given. On the contrary, to adopt such a course would be likely to run a serious risk of conveying an impression of prejudgment.
Finally, even if the issues that arise in relation to the decision under review are properly identified to the applicant, there may yet be cases which would yield to analysis in the terms identified by the Full Court of the Federal Court in Alphaone. It would neither be necessary nor appropriate to now foreclose that possibility.