The High Court of Australia recently considered the standard required of a written statement of reasons in making a statutory decision. While the facts of the case in Wingfoot Australia Partners Pty Ltd v Kocak  HCA 43 were specific to the Victorian Accident Compensation Act, the High Court laid down some general principles that are useful for any decision-maker to know to ensure that their written statement of reasons meets the standard required by statute.
In 1996, the first respondent, Kocak, suffered a neck injury during the course of his employment with the appellants, Wingfoot. In May 2009, after experiencing more significant symptoms to his neck than he had previously experienced, Kocak brought a claim for statutory compensation in respect of the injury under Pt IV of the Accident Compensation Act 1985 (Vic) (Act). Kocak’s claim was unsuccessful.
In November 2009, Kocak commenced two proceedings in the County Court of Victoria, the first seeking leave to bring proceedings for common law damages in respect of his injury (serious injury application) and the second seeking a declaration of entitlement in respect of his injury under Pt IV of the Act (statutory compensation application).
The statutory compensation application was transferred to the Magistrates’ Court, which referred three medical questions to a Medical Panel for determination pursuant to the Act. Relevantly, section 68 of the Act is in the following terms:
(2) The Medical Panel to whom a medical question is so referred must give a certificate as to its opinion and written statement of reasons for that opinion.
(4) For the purposes of determining any question or matter, the opinion of a Medical Panel on a medical question referred to the Medical Panel is to be adopted and applied by any court, body or person and must be accepted as final and conclusive by any court, body or person irrespective of who referred the medical question to the Medical Panel or when the medical question was referred.
The Medical Panel provided the Magistrates’ Court with a certificate stating its opinion on the medical questions referred to it, and a written statement of reasons for that opinion – which were essentially that Kocak’s condition did not result from his 1996 neck injury. The Magistrates’ Court adopted and applied the Medical Panel’s opinion and dismissed the statutory compensation application.
Subsequently, in the serious injury application, Wingfoot sought to argue that the County Court was bound by the Medical Panel’s opinion. In order to avoid that outcome, Kocak applied to the Supreme Court of Victoria for an order quashing the Medical Panel’s opinion. The grounds of that application included that the Medical Panel failed to give adequate reasons for the opinion, which is the subject of this article.
Adequacy of reasons
The High Court acknowledged that the question of whether reasons given by the Medical Panel were adequate to meet the standard required of a written statement of reasons under the Act “raises a question of public importance”. In considering that issue, the High Court provided the following useful observations:
- The starting point is recognition that there is no free-standing common law duty to give reasons for making a statutory decision.
- The duty to give reasons for an opinion is no more and no less than the duty imposed by statute. And so the content of that statutory duty defines the statutory standard that a written statement of reasons must meet to fulfil it.
- The standard required of a written statement of reasons in order to fulfil the statutory duty therefore needs to be determined as an exercise of statutory construction.
- In the absence of express requirements set out in the statute, the standard can be determined only by a process of implication.
The High Court considered that two issues were of particular significance in determining by implication the standard required. The first is the nature of the function performed by the decision-maker (here, the Medical Panel) in forming and giving its opinion. The second is the objective, within the scheme of the particular statute, of requiring the relevant decision-maker to give a written statement of reasons for that opinion.
In the case of the Medical Panel, the High Court held that its function is to form and to give its own opinion on the medical question referred for its opinion, by applying its own medical experience and its own medical expertise. What is to be set out in the statement of reasons is the actual path of reasoning by which the Medical Panel arrived at the opinion the Medical Panel in fact formed for itself.
As to the objective of the Act, the High Court had regard to the Act’s legislative history. In 2010, section 68(2) of the Act had been amended to insert the words “and a written statement of reasons for that opinion”. Prior to that, the obligation to provide a statement of reasons only arose under section 8 of the Administrative Law Act 1978 (Vic), which requires a statement of reasons to be provided on request, and to be “adequate to enable a Court to see whether the decision does or does not involve any error of law”. As there was nothing in the legislative history to suggest that the 2010 amendment was designed to alter the standard previously required, the High Court concluded that the former standard continued to apply.
The High Court said that there is an obvious benefit in requiring a written statement of reasons for an opinion always to explain the actual path of reasoning in sufficient detail to enable a court to see whether the opinion does or does not involve any error of law. The benefit is that it enables a person whose legal rights are affected by an opinion to obtain an order removing the legal effect of the opinion if an error of law is made in forming that opinion.
In explaining the path of reasoning by which the Medical Panel arrived at the opinion it formed, the High Court said that the Panel was under no obligation to explain why it did not reach an opinion it did not form, even if that different opinion was shown by material before it to have been formed by someone else. It did note, though, that in some circumstances, the fact that a different opinion has been formed by another expert in a submission to the Panel might allow an inference to be drawn that the whole of the reasoning of the Panel was not adequately reflected its written statement of reasons.
Ultimately, the High Court allowed the appeal, and held that the Medical Panel’s opinion should not be quashed. The High Court gave two independent reasons for its decision: first, that the Medical Panel’s opinion had no continuing legal effect (an issue not discussed in this article), and secondly, that the reasons given by the Medical Panel for its opinion met the required standard.