Tort law in Australia

Tort law in Australia consists of both common law and, to a lesser extent, legislation. A tort is a civil wrong, other than a breach of contract. Torts may be sued upon by private individuals against other private individuals (or the state) to correct a form of conduct or wrong. A large number of torts exist, and they generally derive their legal status from the common law. Since a court can define an existing tort or even recognise new ones through the common law, tort law is sometimes regarded as limitless and adaptable to modern circumstances.

Australian perspective

Generally, torts are not defined within specific statutes or legislation and have evolved through judge-made law, or common law. However, each state has also created statutes to override the common law, especially in the areas of negligence, personal injuries and defamation, where that has proven necessary.[1]

Australian tort law is heavily influenced by the common law in other countries, principally the United Kingdom, by virtue of Australia's colonial heritage. However, this has since been modified by statutes such as the various states' Civil Liabilities Acts. There is also a strong and recent trend for the Australian High Court to cite with approval many principles from the United States. However, as the High Court noted:

The history of this country and of the common law makes it inevitable and desirable that the courts of this country will continue to obtain assistance and guidance from the learning and reasoning of...other great common law courts. Subject, perhaps, to the special position of decisions of the House of Lords given in the period in which appeals lay from this country to the Privy Council, the precedents of other legal systems are not binding and are useful only to the degree of the persuasiveness of their reasoning.[2]

Differences to UK tort law

  • In Australia, trespass to the person is dependent on the directness of the act interfering with the plaintiff's autonomy. Australian law does not require the wrongdoer to have intent to trespass (see Williams v Milotin).[3][4][5] In the United Kingdom, intent is a crucial element.[6]
  • If an act is direct but unintentional, a plaintiff in Australia may pursue an action based on either negligent trespass or negligence. Because intent is a requirement for trespass under UK law, negligent trespass is not possible in the UK.
  • The onus of proof for trespass 'on the highway' is on the plaintiff at all times.[7][8] Consequently, in a public place the plaintiff must prove there was a 'direct' and 'substantial' interference with their personal autonomy.
  • In Australia, a breach of non-delegable duty is not automatic on founding a cause of action against the primary tortfeasor. Fault on the part of the contracting party must be shown.
  • In cases of negligence, the Australian common law has, since 2002, used a criterion of 'salient features'[9][10][11][12][13] to determine whether a duty of care should be imposed on the defendant. In contrast, the UK common law uses a three-stage test.

Common torts in Australian law

  • Trespasses
  • Occupation or possession of land
  • Negligence
  • Breach of public and statutory duties
    • Public nuisance[23]
    • Breach of statutory duties[24][25]
    • Interferences with the judicial process
  • Misrepresentation
  • Intentional damage to economic interests
    • Interference with contractual relations
    • Conspiracy
    • Intimidation
  • Interference with employment and family relations
    • Actions per quod servitium amisit (injuring an employee rendering them unable to perform services for their employer)
    • Loss of consortium of a spouse[26] (abolished in New South Wales,[27] Tasmania,[28] Western Australia,[29] and the Australian Capital Territory.[30]

Limitation of actions

An example of statutory modification of torts is the various Limitation of Actions Acts, which prescribe time limits within which litigation must be commenced, and extinguish the cause of action (the legal basis for the claim) after the period lapses. The rationale of limitation periods was elucidated by McHugh J:

  • As time goes by, relevant evidence may be lost.
  • It is oppressive to a defendant to allow an action to be brought long after the circumstances which gave rise to it have passed.
  • Limitation periods give certainty to people (especially businesses and insurers) in arranging their affairs and provisioning for their liabilities within a definite period.
  • The public interest requires disputes be settled as quickly as possible.[31]

As a general rule, the limitation period on property damage cases is six years in all jurisdictions;[32] the limitation period on personal injuries is three years in New South Wales,[33] Queensland,[34] South Australia,[35] and Tasmania,[36] and six years in all other jurisdictions; and there are other limits on actions arising from e.g. contracts and building and construction cases.[37]

Elements of various torts

Invasion of privacy

In the case ABC v Lenah Games Meats in 2001, the High Court left open the possibility for development of a tort of invasion of privacy.[38] The Court stated it did not want to decide the matter at that time and only one member, Justice Callinan, gave any indication such a tort may be acceptable.[39] The Court held that Victoria Park Racing v Taylor[40] did not inhibit the development of privacy law in Australia.[38]

Since ABC v Lenah Game Meats, the question of whether invasion of privacy is a valid cause of action has been entertained in at least two states.[38] The most adventurous decision is arguably that of the District Court of Queensland in Grosse v Purvis, in which Judge Skoien awarded damages for invasion of privacy.[41] Conversely, the existence of the tort was questioned by Justice Gillard of the Supreme Court of Victoria in Giller v Procopets, in which the Court held the law had 'not developed to the point where the law in Australia recognises an action for breach of privacy'[42]

Both cases were settled out of court and, as a result, did not proceed to appeal. Until this tort receives the attention of an Australian appellate court, the precedential value of Grosse[41] and Giller[42] is limited.

The ALRC has recommended the Commonwealth create a private right to sue for a serious invasion of privacy.[43] The ALRC considers that by describing the action as a tort, courts will be encouraged to draw upon established principles of tort law (which it hopes would promote a measure of certainty and consistency to the law).[43] It also considers the enactment of such a cause of action would bring Australia into line with recent common law developments concerning serious invasions of privacy in common law jurisdictions.[43]


Since 2005, all Australian states have adopted uniform defamation laws.

There are three elements that must be satisfied in order to establish a claim for defamation.

Firstly, the matter complained must contain a defamatory meaning. This is capable of entailing more than one meaning and can include; an article, advertisement or report communicated via an electronic or hard-written document, a gesture or oral utterance.[44] The matter in question may bear a direct or innuendo meaning. The latter ought to be satisfied by virtue of an objective test. Simply put, what a witness perceived to be true is irrelevant. Instead, liability only extends to defamatory imputations which a reasonable person might draw.[44] Liability will not extend where a defamatory imputation was drawn unreasonably.

A matter will only be actionable on the condition that the defamatory imputation can be established as referring to a particular individual. In the event the plaintiff's name is omitted, reference to the plaintiff's characteristics, address and occupation can be used to bring an action against the defendant. It is a question of fact to determine whether identification has been established.[45][46] Therefore, it is a question of law 'to decide whether on the evidence an ordinary sensible man could draw an inference that the article referred to the plaintiff'.[47]

Finally, the plaintiff must prove that the matter was published by the defendant or in circumstances in which the defendant was responsible for the publication.[48]

New South Wales: Defamation Act 2005.[49]

  • Visscher v Maritime Union of Australia'.[50]

Victoria: Defamation Act 2005.[51]

South Australia: Defamation Act 2005.[52]

Northern Territory: Defamation Act 2006.[53]

Western Australia: Defamation Act 2005.[54]

Tasmania: Defamation Act 2005.[55]

Queensland: Defamation Act 2005.[56]

  • Pingel v Toowoomba Newspapers Pty Ltd.[57]

Australian Capital Territory: Civil Law (Wrongs) Act 2002.[58]

One of the major and most discussed changes concerned defences to publication of defamatory statements. After the reforms, defendants can defend a defamation case on the basis of truth alone (i.e. their comments were true).[59] Prior to the legislative changes, a number of states (including New South Wales and Tasmania) required that comments be both true, and in the public interest or public benefit, to be protected.

Other changes created by the new uniform defamation laws include limits on the maximum payout available, limitation periods for defamation, and formal recognition to any apologies made by the wrongful party.

Wrongful life

A wrongful life claim is one in which a child plaintiff brings an action against a doctor who negligently diagnosed the plaintiff's mother. Usually, the doctor failed to diagnose rubella during the first trimester, for which there is no cure and which will inevitably cause profound disabilities in the unborn child. Had the mother been correctly diagnosed, she would have exercised her legal right to abortion.[60]

In May 2006, the majority of the High Court rejected wrongful life, refusing to accept that life can be considered a compensable harm. This means that children who are born disabled as a result of a doctor's (admitted) negligence cannot claim damages.[12][60][61] Parents are able to pursue 'wrongful birth' claims if the child (disabled or not) is the outcome of a negligently performed sterilisation procedure.[62] However, since the Civil Liability Act, they cannot recover the costs of raising the child in New South Wales.[63]


Tort law occupies much of the time of the various Magistrates, Local, District and County Courts and a substantial proportion of the time of the Supreme Courts of each of the states and territories. In addition, there are numerous specialist tribunals dealing with workers' compensation and other cases. Road accident victims are far more likely to make claims and receive tort compensation than any other group[64] This predominance is due not so much to the law of torts, but the fact that liability insurance is compulsory by statute in all Australian states.[65]

Historical context of legislative reform


Since the common law evolves slowly, legislative intervention has been necessary to keep torts in pace with social needs. The Workmen's Compensation legislation from 1897 is the most potent example of the necessity of tort reform. The combination of (a) increased risks for workers during industrialisation, and; (b) the refusal by common law courts to place the costs of workplace accidents on employers; forced parliaments to redress the defects and shift the costs of industrial accidents back to employers.[66] Legislation such as the Trade Practices Act 1974 and the state Fair Trading Acts also impinged upon the traditional tort rules in commercial and property areas.

From the early 1980s legislative intervention attempted to reduce the high volume of litigation involving motor vehicle and industrial accidents. Parallel to the rise of Thatcherism in the United Kingdom, in all Australian states common law torts were significantly modified. Speedy "no fault" compensation was made available to workers and victims of motor vehicle accidents in Tasmania, Victoria and the Northern Territory.[67]

The decline of HIH Insurance, the Ipp Review and beyond

Since 2002 there has been an acceleration of legislative change, driven by a perceived crisis in the price and availability of insurance, which was largely blamed on the law of negligence.[68] The issue became charged politically, reinforced by the direct liability of government and its role as a re-insurer of last resort. New South Wales, the most litigious state,[69][70] had commenced legislative change prior to 2002. Following the collapse of HIH Insurance and the related escalation in insurance premiums in public liability and medical negligence, the NSW proposals were adopted more widely throughout Australia.[1][71]


  1. See, e.g., Civil Liability Act 2002 (NSW); Civil Liability Act 2003 (Qld); Civil Liability Act 2002 (Tas); Civil Liability Act 2002 (WA).
  2. Cook v Cook [1986] HCA 73, (1986) 162 CLR 376 per Mason. Wilson, Deane and Dawson JJ.
  3. Williams v Milotin [1957] HCA 83, (1957) 97 CLR 465, High Court.
  4. Parsons v Partridge (1992) 111 ALR 257 Supreme Court of Norfolk Island.
  5. Public Transport Commission (NSW) v Perry [1977] HCA 32, (1977) 137 CLR 107, High Court.
  6. Letang v Cooper [1964] EWCA 5, [1965] 1 QB 232.
  7. Venning v Chin (1974) 10 SASR 299.
  8. Hackshaw v Shaw [1984] HCA 84, (1984) 155 CLR 614, High Court.
  9. Caltex Oil (Australia) Pty Ltd v Dredge "Willemstad" [1976] HCA 65, (1976) 136 CLR 529, High Court.
  10. Graham Barclay Oysters Pty Ltd v Ryan [2002] HCA 54, (2002) 211 CLR 540, High Court.
  11. Perre v Apand Pty Ltd [1999] HCA 36, (1999) 198 CLR 180, High Court.
  12. Tabet v Gett [2010] HCA 12, (2010) 240 CLR 537, High Court.
  13. Caltex Refineries (Qld) Pty Limited v Stavar [2009] NSWCA 258, NSW Court of Appeal.
  14. Barton v Armstrong [1973] UKPC 27, [1976] AC 104, Privy Council (on appeal from NSW).
  15. Rixon v Star City Pty Ltd [2001] NSWCA 265, NSW Court of Appeal.
  16. Balmain Ferry v Robertson [1906] HCA 83, (1906) 4 CLR 379, High Court.
  17. Bird v Jones [1845] EWHC J64, (1845) 7 QB 742; 115 ER 668.
  18. Waldrip v Ciaccia (Civil Dispute) [2015] ACAT 9, Civil & Administrative Tribunal (ACT).
  19. Collins v Wilcock (1984) 1 WLR 1172.
  20. Munro v Southern Dairies Ltd [1955] VicLawRp 60, [1995] VLR 332, Supreme Court (Vic).
  21. Stockwell v State of Victoria [2001] VSC 497, Supreme Court (Vic).
  22. Challen v The McLeod Country Golf Club [2004] QCA 358, Court of Appeal (Qld).
  23. Walsh v Ervin [1952] VicLawRp 47, [1952] VLR 361.
  24. Mummery v Irvings Pty Ltd [1956] HCA 45, (1956) 96 CLR 99, High Court.
  25. Groves v Wimborne [1898] 2 QB 402.
  26. Best v Samuel Fox & Co Ltd [1952] AC 716.
  27. Law Reform (Marital Consortium) Act 1984 (NSW) s3.
  28. Common law (Miscellaneous Actions) Act 1986 (Tas) s3.
  29. Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1941 (WA) s3.
  30. Civil Law (Wrongs) Act 2002 (ACT) s 218.
  31. Brisbane Authority v Taylor [1996] HCA 25, (1995) 186 CLR 541; (1996) 70 ALJR 866 at pp 871-2, High Court.
  32. Limitation Act 1969 (NSW) s 14(1)(b); Limitation of Actions Act 1974 (Qld) s 10(1)(a); Limitation of Actions Act 1936 (SA) s 35; Limitation Act 1974 (Tas) s 4(1)(a); Limitation of Actions Act 1958 (Vic) s 5(1)(a); Limitation Act 1935 (WA) s 38(1)(c)(vi); and Limitation Act 1985 (ACT) s 11(1).
  33. Limitation Act 1969 (NSW) s 18A
  34. Limitation of Actions Act 1974 (Qld) s 11.
  35. Limitation of Actions Act 1936 (SA) s 36.
  36. Limitation Act 1974 (Tas) s 5(1).
  37. See e.g. Limitation Act 1985 (ACT) s 40.
  38. Australian Broadcasting Corporation v Lenah Game Meats Pty Limited [2001] HCA 63, (2001) 208 CLR 199; 185 ALR 1, High Court.
  39. ABC v Lenah Game Meats Pty Ltd [2001] HCA 63 at [313-[336] per Callinan J.
  40. Victoria Park Racing & Recreation Grounds Co Ltd v Taylor [1937] HCA 45, (1937) 58 CLR 479, High Court.
  41. Grosse v Purvis [2003] QDC 151, District Court (Qld).
  42. Giller v Procopets [2004] VSC 113 at [188], Supreme Court (Vic).
  43. Australian Law Reform Commission. "Summary" (PDF). Serious Invasions of Privacy in the Digital Era - Final Report (PDF). [2014] Australian Law Reform Commission 123.
  44. Defamation Act 2005 (NSW) s 4 Definitions.
  45. Knupffer v London Express Newspaper Ltd [1944] UKHL 1, [1944] AC 116 at 122, House of Lords (UK).
  46. Law Reform Committee of South Australia (1982). "69th report: Group Defamation" (PDF)..
  47. Universal Communication Network trading as New Tang Dynasty v Chinese Media Group (Aust) Pty Ltd and Chan [2008] NSWCA 1, NSW Court of Appeal.
  48. Dow Jones & Co Inc v Gutnick [2002] HCA 56 at [25]-[27], (2002) 210 CLR 433, High Court.
  49. Defamation Act 2005 (NSW).
  50. Visscher v Maritime Union of Australia [2014] NSWSC 350.
  51. Defamation Act 2005 (Vic).
  52. Defamation Act 2005 (SA).
  53. Defamation Act 2005 (NT).
  54. Defamation Act 2005 (WA).
  55. Defamation Act 2005 (Tas).
  56. Defamation Act 2005 (Qld).
  57. Pingel v Toowoomba Newspapers Pty Ltd [2010] QCA 175.
  58. Civil Law (Wrongs) Act 2002 (ACT) Chapter 9.
  59. Defamation Act 2005 (WA) s 25.
  60. Harriton v Stephens [2006] HCA 15, (2006) 226 CLR 52, High Court.
  61. Waller v James [2006] HCA 16, (2006) 226 CLR 136, High Court.
  62. Cattanach v Melchior [2003] HCA 38, (2003) 215 CLR 1, High Court.
  63. Civil Liability Act 2002 (NSW) s 71.
  64. Graycar, Reg. "Public Liability: A Plea for Facts". (2002) 25(3) University of New South Wales Law Journal 810.
  65. Motor Accidents Compensation Act 1999 (NSW) s 8 Offence of using uninsured motor vehicle on road.
  66. Gardiner, D & McGlone, F (1998). Outline of Torts (2nd ed.). Butterworths. p. 33. citing McGuire v Union Steamship Co of New Zealand Ltd [1920] HCA 37, (1920) 27 CLR 570 at 578-83.
  67. Drabsch, T (2005). "No Fault Compensation" (PDF). Briefing Paper No 6. Parliamentary Library, NSW. Retrieved 25 May 2017..
  68. "Final report: no justification for tort reforms". Lawyers Weekly. Lawyers Weekly. 2 March 2012. Retrieved 30 July 2016.
  69. "NSW slowest in catching murderers on the loose". The Sydney Morning Herald. 28 January 2005.
  70. Spigelman J (2004). "Tort Law Reform in Australia". Archived from the original on 8 August 2008.
  71. McDonald, Barbara. "Legislative Intervention in the Law of Negligence: The Common Law, Statutory Interpretation and Tort Reform in Australia". Cite journal requires |journal= (help) (2005) 27(3) Sydney Law Review 443. Retrieved 5 August 2014.

Tuberville v Savage [1669] EWHC KB J25

'Breaking Women's Silence in Law: The Dilemma of the Gendered Nature of Legal Reasoning' Lucinda M. Finley (1989) 64 Notre Dame Law Review 886

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