Australia Conservation Foundation v. Commonwealth (1980) 146 CLR 493

Facts: The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) sued the Commonwealth and some of its Ministers for declarations, injunctions and other orders to challenge the validity of decisions concerning a proposal by a company to establish and operate a resort and tourist area in central Queensland and exchange control transactions connected with the proposal. Approvals for the development had been given under the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974 (Cth) (EPA) and administrative procedures under it and under the Banking (Foreign Exchange) Regulations. The ACF asserted the right to sue because of its well-known interest in the preservation and conservation of the environment and because it had lodged a submission pursuant to the administrative procedures under the EPA. The defendants applied for orders to strike out the statement of claim and dismiss the action on the ground that the ACF had not standing to bring the action.

Held (per Gibbs, Stephen & Mason JJ, Murphy J dissenting): that the ACF had no standing to maintain the action and that the action should be dismissed. In cases which do not concern constitutional validity a person who has no special interest in the subject matter of an action over and above that enjoyed by the public generally, has no locus standi to sue for an injunction or declaration to prevent the violation of a public right or to enforce the performance of a public duty.

Per Gibbs J: It is quite clear that an ordinary member of the public, who has no interest other than that which any member of the public has in upholding the law, has no standing to sue to prevent the violation of a public right or to enforce the performance of a public duty. There is no difference, in this respect, between the making of a declaration and the grant of an injunction. The assertion of public rights and the prevention of public wrongs by means of those remedies is the responsibility of the Attorney-General, who may proceed either ex officio or on the relation of a private individual. A private citizen who has no special interest is incapable of bringing proceedings for that purpose, unless, of course, he is permitted by statute to do so.

Per Gibbs J: I would not deny that a person might have a special interest in the preservation of a particular environment. However an interest for present purposes, does not mean a mere intellectual or emotional concern. A person is not interested within the meaning of the rule, unless he is likely to gain some advantage, other than the satisfaction of righting a wrong, upholding a principle or winning a contest, if his action succeeds or to suffer some disadvantage, other than a sense of grievance or a debt for costs, if his action fails.

Per Stephen J: If the present state of the law in Australia is to be changed, it is pre-eminently as case for legislation, preceded by careful consideration and report, so that any need for relaxation in the requirements for locus standi may be fully explored and the limits of desirable relaxation precisely defined.

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