GLJ v The Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church for the Diocese of Lismore  HCA 32
At a glance
- The High Court of Australia has today delivered judgment in GLJ v The Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church for the Diocese of Lismore  HCA 32 and, by majority, has allowed an appeal from a 2022 decision of the NSW Court of Appeal.
- The decision means that the Diocese’s appeal to the NSW Court of Appeal is dismissed and the decision of Campbell J, who dismissed the Diocese’s application at first instance in September 2021, stands.
The High Court of Australia has today allowed an appeal of the decision of the NSW Court of Appeal in The Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church for the Diocese of Lismore v GLJ  NSWCA 78. The majority (Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Jagot JJ) delivered a joint judgment allowing the appeal, with Gleeson and Steward JJ providing separate dissenting judgments in favour of the appeal being dismissed.
The appellant, referred to by the pseudonym ‘GLJ’, alleged that she was sexually abused by a priest within the Diocese of Lismore (Diocese) in 1968 when she was 14 years old. GLJ sued the Diocese in the Supreme Court of NSW, alleging that it was liable to her in negligence and was also vicariously liable for the abuse by the alleged perpetrator.
The Diocese filed an application seeking a permanent stay of proceedings on the basis that a fair trial could no longer be held due to the paucity of evidence and because the alleged perpetrator and other material witnesses had died. In September 2021, the Diocese’s application was dismissed at first instance by Campbell J. The Diocese appealed the decision to the NSW Court of Appeal. In June 2022, Mitchelmore, Brereton and Macfarlan JJA allowed the appeal and granted a permanent stay of the proceedings in favour of the Diocese.
In November 2022, the High Court granted GLJ special leave to appeal. In June 2023, the appeal was heard by Kiefel CJ, Gageler, Steward, Gleeson and Jagot JJ. At hearing, the appellant (GLJ) urged the court to consider the broader context of reform regarding historic child sexual abuse cases, as indicated by the removal of limitation periods, and to further consider specific challenges faced by victims in coming forward with claims so long after the occurrence of abuse. Further, the appellant emphasised the need to not equate the idea of a ‘fair trial’ with a ‘perfect trial’, and criticised various factual errors they assert were made by the Court of Appeal.
In response, the respondent (the Diocese) emphasised the exceptional and extreme facts of the specific case that underscored the inability for a fair trial to be conducted, including the death of key witnesses and unavailability of key documents. The respondent additionally noted the irrelevance of recent legislative changes to this matter, highlighting that they did not alter the ability of a court to order a stay of proceedings.
After hearing the appeal, the High Court allowed the appeal on the grounds that granting a stay of proceedings in anything other than exceptional circumstances, and only as a last resort, would bring the administration of justice into disrepute. The Court commented that the recent legislative changes have created a new legal context within which the alleged abuse of process must be evaluated, and in that context, the contention of unfairness from the Diocese must be rejected.
The decision means that the Diocese’s appeal to the NSW Court of Appeal is dismissed and the decision of Campbell J, who dismissed the Diocese’s application at first instance, stands.
The decision of the High Court today provides guidance on the application of the law in this area, which has been constantly evolving in all jurisdictions across the country. A more comprehensive analysis of the decision will follow.