On 13 September 2017, the Land Access Ombudsman Act 2017 (Qld) (Act) received royal assent. However, the Act is yet to be proclaimed.
- investigate and facilitate the resolution of land access disputes;
- refer contravening conduct to appropriate government departments;
- identify and advise the government on systemic land access issues; and
- promote public awareness of the Ombudsman’s functions.
The Act is in response to Mr Robert Scott’s independent report in 2015 of the Gasfields Commission in Queensland, in which Mr Scott identified there was no avenue between negotiations and litigation to resolve disputes under conduct and compensation agreements (CCAs) and make good agreements (MGAs).
CCAs set out the terms on which a mining and resource companies are entitled to access and conduct resource activities on a land owner’s property. Under an MGA, a mining and resource company must make good the impacts to a land owner’s water bore(s) caused by the resource company.
Resolving Land Access Disputes
The Ombudsman’s primary role is to investigate land access disputes, ie disputes about an alleged breach of a CCA or MGA between the parties to the agreement. Parties must have made a reasonable attempt to resolve the dispute before referring the matter to the Ombudsman. Importantly, the Act excuses parties from any potential liability for breaching a dispute resolution clause by referring the dispute to the Ombudsman, meaning that parties cannot contract out of the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. However, the Ombudsman must refuse certain referrals, eg where the referral is frivolous, trivial, the dispute is the subject of investigation by a government department or where there are existing proceedings on foot.
If the Ombudsman accepts the referral, they may tailor the procedure for their investigation of the dispute. The investigation must, if practicable, involve a non-binding dispute resolution process (eg, conciliation, mediation). The Ombudsman also has coercive powers, such as the power to require a party to give the Ombudsman particular documents or information or attend a meeting and answer questions. They may also enter and inspect the relevant land (subject to obtaining consent). In carrying out the investigation, the Ombudsman is not bound by the rules of evidence, although they must comply with natural justice and maintain confidentiality.
At the end of the investigation, the Ombudsman issues the parties a notice with its proposed outcome. The Ombudsman must circulate a draft of the notice and invite the parties to make submissions, which must be considered before finalising the notice. The notice must include details of the resolution of the dispute if it was resolved by the investigation or, if the dispute was not resolved, advice about the merits of the parties’ respective positions and recommendations.
Although not binding on the parties, the notice is admissible in any future Land Court proceeding as evidence of the matters in the notice – even though the Ombudsman is not bound by the rules of evidence. Therefore, parties need to give proper attention to the investigation, because receiving a favourable notice from the Ombudsman could be an important part of a party’s overall dispute resolution strategy. The notice could also save parties the time and expense of having to prove matters in the Land Court.
Referring contravening conduct to government departments
In addition to the investigative and facilitative role, the Ombudsman may recommend to appropriate government departments the investigation of suspected contraventions of:
- a ‘Resource Act’;
- chapter 3 of the Water Act 2000 (Qld); and
- the Environmental Protection Act 1994 (Qld).
The Ombudsman may only do so if they have accepted the relevant land access referral and reasonably suspect that the mining and resource company either has committed a contravention, is committing a contravention or is likely to do so. In addition, before making their recommendation, the Ombudsman must warn the resource company and invite it to make submissions, which the Ombudsman must consider before making their recommendation.
Advising on systemic issues
Over time, the Ombudsman will develop an expert understanding on the common issues relating to land access. Consequently, the Act empowers the Ombudsman to give advice, where appropriate, to chief executives of State government departments and other government entities on systemic issues arising from land access dispute referrals. To preserve confidentiality, any such advice must not include information which the Ombudsman is satisfied is confidential and the disclosure of which may be detriment to a person’s commercial interests.
The Ombudsman must also produce an annual report for each financial year on the operation of the Ombudsman’s office, including details of, as a minimum, the land access dispute referrals made and investigated, notices at the end of those investigations and recommendations to investigate suspected contraventions. The report must not disclose the identity of a party to a land access dispute.
As Mr Scott envisioned, referring a dispute to the Ombudsman falls somewhere between negotiations and formal proceedings. Whereas negotiations may prove ultimately fruitless, the notice at the end of the Ombudsman’s investigation (although not binding) may have serious legal significance. On the other hand, the Ombudsman’s processes are less prescriptive than litigation and arbitration, which may avoid time delays and reduce costs. Additionally, the Ombudsman’s role in assisting other government departments with regulatory compliance, advising on systemic land access issues and educating the government and public on land access generally, should result in future positive policy and legislative changes to the land access regime in Queensland. Indeed, the Act may be a precursor to further reform to what is an increasingly complex and contentious issue.
The content of this publication is for reference purposes only. It is current at the date of publication. This content does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be obtained before taking any action based on this publication.