Release of historic Tasmanian cases


Hon Chief Justice Alan Blow OAM

The reason that we are here on this beautiful sunny December afternoon is to launch the new AustLII databases containing historic Tasmanian legislation, and the authorised reports of the Supreme Court of Tasmania from 1897 to 1991 inclusive. The legislation, of course, is very important, at least for some of us. In the bad old days, it was very frustrating to read a report of a case and to think, “Well, I wonder what legislation that court was applying, and what it said.” Finding the relevant legislation could involve a fairly absurd tour of the libraries of Hobart, depending on what one needed to find. Shaun McElwaine and I had a case in 1995 called New Town Timber and Hardware Pty Ltd v Gurr (1995) 5 Tas R 71, where the leading case on the critical point was reported only in the Western Australian Industrial Gazette, and the case turned on the WA statute law of that time, which Zeeman J, of course, tracked down. In another case, Clarke v Burton (1993) 3 Tas R 370, I represented Pam Clarke, our very popular anti-battery-hen campaigner, who sued a magistrate for damages for false imprisonment. I was asked by the Full Court after I had argued the case, “What was the statute law that the Victorian Full Court was concerned with in 1862 that applied to summary convictions for assault?” Of course, when I found the answer and went back to court with it, there were representatives of the media saying, “Alan, can you just explain what you’re doing for Pam here in court today?” Those bad old days, we hope, will be at an end.

Those of you with a keen interest in historic statute law will be interested in something that I learned this week. When William IV passed away on 20 June 1837, news of that sad event did not reach the colonies for quite some time. The Tasmanian and New South Wales Parliaments continued numbering their statutes in the eighth year of the reign of William IV. But there was no such year. It seems that they continued to do this even after the news had reached the Antipodes.

So far as the case law is concerned, it is a major achievement to have the authorised reports of our Supreme Court for the years 1897 to 1991 available on line with their headnotes. 1897 to 1940 was relatively easy. But I understand that 1941 to 1991 was something that only fell into place this week. AustLII had anticipated that, and everything was scanned and ready to go. The necessary letter arrived from Thompsons on, I think, Monday, and thus we are able to launch all of it today.

AustLII is an Australian success story. (I am preaching to the converted, of course.) It is a triumph of common sense. Since its establishment in 1995, it has performed an excellent service in making legal information freely available to all. Its concept has been copied in other countries. Its medium neutral citations, introduced in this State in 1999, have been copied in many other countries.

So far as the future is concerned, I think it is inevitable that the day will come when the authorised reports of the superior courts will be available for free, on line, with their headnotes. There are impediments. There are questions of copyright and royalties, and the question of how to fund the editors who do the selecting, and the reporters who write the headnotes and check the case references, and so forth. It is something that I would welcome, and I think we all would, so that these things are available to all.

There are moves within the Councils of Law Reporting to head towards this. The Law Council of Australia held a meeting about the subject recently. There were various impediments and ideas that the different constituent bodies threw up. Common sense prevailed with decimal currency and metric measurement, and it will, I think, in time, prevail with the availability online of authorised reports.

Today we see, thanks to AustLII and its funders, a major achievement in the making available of the Tasmanian legislation and authorised reports from past years on line, in large quantities. Let us hope that that is soon followed with the equivalent material from the remaining Australian jurisdictions.

I have great pleasure in launching the new databases.

Thank you very much.