It was held in Minister for Immigration and Citizenship v Li (2013) 249 CLR 332 that even where a statute grants a decision-maker discretionary powers – i.e. the decision-maker is given substantial leeway in how to make decisions under the statute – the decision-maker is still subject to standards of reasonableness and rationality. This is the case even if the statute does not mention such standards. Explain the Court’s reasoning - in coming to this decision, and whether you agree with this reasoning.
Li was applying for a skill-based international student visa, which required a Trade Recognition Australia skills exam (TRA). A Minister's representative initially rejected Li's application, but she appealed to the Migration Review Tribunal (MRT). The MRT first declined Li's application. However, the TRA subsequently authorized his resubmitted application for evaluation. Li notified the MRT (via her migration agency) that although her TRA evaluation was unsuccessful, it was also erroneous and that the MRT should defer deciding until the TRA reassessed Li's assessment. The MRT disagreed, stating that Li was allowed to submit her case.
Question Before the Court
Did the Migration Review Tribunal not exercise discretionary powers conferred upon it, reasonably?
Jurisprudence: Unfolding the Law
It is a general principle of law that no authority exercising discretionary powers should be granted complete independence without legal oversight. A discretionary power ought to function within the confines of the statute authorizing the subject matter, scope, and purpose. In circumstances where the discretion is conferred without substantial elaboration of the grounds on which it needs to be exercised, then the primary objective of the legislature must be evaluated and appreciated to give effect to justice.
In Minister for Immigration and Citizenship v. Li, the Court delved upon the principle as mentioned earlier in detail in light of the facts of the case. It established the basic standards to be followed while exercising discretionary duties.
The Court reiterated that discretion must always be in accordance with the "rule of reasons and justice' and not merely based upon a personal judgment on the issue. The reasoning should be coherent and rational in relation to the purpose of the statute under which it is granted, and any decision made without regard for the express or implied procedural and substantive nature of the regulation and that is irrelevant to the statute's objective is outside the scope of discretionary power. The Court recognized that this reasoning has impartiality, continuity, and consistency elements and is devoid of improper motive and error of judgment.
Additionally, the Court emphasized the restrictive nature of the definition of "unreasonableness" as developed in the Wednesbury Corporation Case and distinguished it by adding that though unreasonableness means the failure to obey rules while applying laws, failure to encompass relevant material and loss to exclude irrelevant matters, it might not be necessary that these failures can be objectively drawn from the reasoning. Lack of appreciation of the statutory responsibility, excessive weight to some factor, or illogical reasoning resulting in manifestly unjust, partial, unfair, unequal, and oppressive judgement is termed unreasonableness.
However, the Court recognized that while reasonableness brings in the desired lawfulness in the decision-making process, it cannot prelude to be the sole basis for challenging a decision. Reasonableness is merely a threshold above which room for official judgment and choice exists, allowing for the use of alternative decision-making techniques. However, a review becomes essential when unreasonableness is so embedded in the decision that it has led to an error in assessing jurisdictional facts and is not confined to subjective view and value judgment.
In light of this jurisprudence, the Court, in the present case, applied one of the fundamental principles of reasonableness which necessitates the decision-makers to provide an opportunity to be heard to the person affected by the decision so that the relevant material is bound to be taken into account to deliver a judgment is on record and had its decision.
Ratio of the Court
MRT failed to account for the possibility that the TRA might complete Li's abilities assessment, and thus, the decision was fraught with arbitrariness and irrationality, therefore depriving Li of justice.
Conclusion via a Critical Analysis of the Decision
The Court rightfully recognized that it is not prudent to extend the supervisory role of the judiciary by undertaking a review of the decision on the merits of exercise of discretionary power until the decision prima facie reflects arbitrariness. According to law, discretion is to be exercised with the prudence of an honest, competent man responsible for the office. Still, there is a clear abuse of power in the present case since the applicable statute's fundamental elements of reasonableness are not followed.
The guiding principle of the Migration Act 1958 suggests that it needs to act fair, quick, economical, and informal by working according to the substantial justice and merit of the case and by not bound by technicalities and rules of evidence. When viewed through the lens of the statute's objective, the context of these forces demonstrates that because the Tribunal takes an inquisitorial rather than adversarial approach to a subject, it is obligated to judiciously examine the evidence and arguments before it and rather than obtain additional relevant information on its own to reach a correct decision.
This becomes more significant as the Tribunal would not have suffered due to adjournment. Although it is entitled to meet the legislative objective with timeliness, the time involved is not greater than the justice itself, especially when flexibility is allowed by the statute. Nor any other party would have been prejudiced or damaged due to delay other than Li himself.
Thus, there is nothing in the governing principles of the statute that could have allowed the Tribunal to refuse to grant an adjournment. The combined effect of "to act fair, just, quick, economical and informal" permitted a chance to wait to obtain accurate results of TRA.
Therefore, the author agrees with the decision of the Court that the MRT did not comply with statutory obligation while exercising its discretionary powers even when it had sufficient evidence to believe that a favourable and concrete result by TRA could be obtained sooner, which would facilitate the decision making. The Tribunal acted against natural justice, a good conscience, and equity by not adjourning as it failed an otherwise successful application and deprived Li of many benefits.