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The Australian National University

The Development of the High Court's Willingness to Overrule Common Law Precedent

Sonali Walpola (2017) 45 (2)

In its first 60 years the High Court showed a complete deference to English precedent, and did not of itself initiate changes to common law doctrines. The High Court took its first steps towards autonomy in common law matters only in the 1960s when it abandoned its policy of following decisions of the House of Lords, thereby ending the practice of automatically incorporating English common law developments into Australian law. It is shown that the Court acquired a willingness to overturn ‘recent’ common law rules (those of 20th century origin) after the abolition of appeals from the High Court to the Privy Council in the 1970s. The elimination of appeals from State Supreme Courts to the Privy Council in the 1980s led to a further broadening of the range of doctrines the Court was prepared to reconsider. Notably, since the 1990s, the Court has shown its willingness, in compelling circumstances, to overrule ancient common law doctrines acquired before Federation. This paper gives a detailed account of the emergence and expansion of the High Court’s willingness to overrule common law precedent. It reveals how the High Court’s autonomy in common law matters was developed in distinct stages that are linked to Australia’s changing legal, political and socio-economic ties with Britain, and its growing sense of an independent national identity.

Vol 45, Issue 2, 2017

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