The decisions of the High Court and the Privy Council in Robertson v The Balmain New Ferry Company Ltd retain their place in modern tort texts discussing false imprisonment. This is surprising because the reasoning is frequently considered unclear at best or incorrect as worst. This article considers the case in two historical contexts to evaluate these views. The first context considers contemporary legal doctrine by exploring the significance of the pre-Judicature Act pleading rules applicable in New South Wales and the gap in the contemporary law that made the company’s method of enforcing fare collection problematic. Despite these impediments, the commercial pressures to uphold the system of fare collection proved sufficient to overcome these objections. The second, broader, historical context explores the reaction to the decision of the High Court as an aspect of lingering anti-federal sentiment in New South Wales. The analysis reveals a uniquely Australian context to the decision and reveals the potential of studies of the history of private law to contribute to the history of Australian law more generally.Lunney comments
The decision of the Privy Council in the case of Robinson v Balmain New Ferry Co Ltd remains a part of many tort courses and tort textbooks in common law countries. et the reason for including it tends to be to dismiss it as out of line with general principle, as non-representative rather than paradigmatic. It is explained away as an aberration, a task made easier by the eccentricity of its facts. Whilst for explanatory purposes this is a perfectly satisfactory way of dealing with the case as part of the modern law of tort, it leaves open a number of questions. First, if the case was considered contrary to general principle, why did the decisions of both the High Court of Australia and the Privy Council find comprehensively in favour of the ferry company? Analysis of contemporary legal doctrine suggests a lacuna in the law relating to the operation of the system of collecting fares adopted by the ferry company. The matter was of enormous importance to ferry companies: a result in favour of Robertson would have mandated significant change in ferry companies’ practices. The way that the legal lacuna was filled by both the High Court and the Privy Council avoided this commercially undesirable result — albeit with reasoning that gave short shrift to the pleading rules that operated in New South Wales — and ignored well-established limitations on the circumstances in which a person’s imprisonment could be justified.
The emphasis that Robertson placed on pleading rules in his argument may reveal a subtler context. In the High Court and in the petition for leave to appeal to the Privy Council, Robertson stressed the importance of respecting the pleading rules of New South Wales. The concern that State law might be ignored by the federal High Court needs to be viewed in the context of a High Court that was barely three years old and a federation that had been formed less than a decade before. The reaction to the decision of the High Court demonstrates that anti-Federation sentiment had not simply gone away after 1901. Given the status of the plaintiff, Archibald Nugent Robertson, the decision of the High Court provided a suitable focus for some of that sentiment, in terms of specific criticism of the High Court, as well as for more general expressions of dissatisfaction with Federation. In short, the case demonstrates the potential significance of Australian legal history, in particular the history of private law, to explanations of wider historical trends in Australia, an area that deserves far greater attention than it has thus far received. ...
This article has attempted to place the decision in Robinson v Balmain New Ferry Co Ltd in its historical context. That context is a complex amalgam with both an internal and an external dimension — a dimension that was understood and controlled by the lawyers and a dimension that went beyond the intricacies of pleading and doctrine. Whatever the merits of the competing legal arguments — and in many ways Robertson’s were stronger — the ferry company was not prepared to limit its case by reference to relatively narrow points of law. By the time the case reached the High Court, the commercial ramifications of a decision in Robertson’s favour were explicitly pointed out by the ferry company. The High Court and the Privy Council were not prepared to jeopardise the established system of fare collection; as the Balmain Observer put it, the ferry company’s rules had been endorsed by its victory. That the decision has proved to be of limited practical importance merely demonstrates its expediency: the commercial imperative of the ferry company could not generate a rule of general application. Viewing the case in its historical context may not change our views as to the result, but it does allow us to explore the interplay between the internal and external dimensions of legal reasoning. It demonstrates that these contexts were not mutually exclusive. As David Ibbetson has shown, the way a case is put by lawyers to the court is fundamental to how the case is decided, and this is evidenced by the varying ways the case was put to the courts by the ferry company’s lawyers. The ferry company was allowed to detain Robertson not just because he had entered into a contract but because the High Court was aware of the commercial consequences of a decision in his favour. This is not to deny the force of reasoning processes internal to law but merely suggests that in some cases, at least in the past, judges and courts did consider the consequences of their decisions, and in doing so, may have considered matters beyond legal doctrine.
At a broader level, Robertson also shows the value of historical analysis of private law in Australia. The history of tort law in Australia after Federation remains to be written, and Robertson is a good example of the merits of such a project. It reveals an Australian court dealing with a case of first impression that forced it to make new law, a law which was in fact endorsed by the Privy Council. As Bruce Kercher notes, the observation that Australian courts merely copied the English common law ‘should be a commencing point of historical analysis, a hypothesis to explore, rather than a conclusion’. He notes that ‘[w]hen this history is written, we might well find that the High Court was less deferential to English law than we presently assume’. We may also find, as in Robertson, that there were peculiarly Australian contexts in which court decisions and legislation were made. It would be going far too far to think that the High Court justices in Robertson were out to get him, but Robertson does illustrate that decisions are not made in an historical vacuum and, at least to some degree, reflect contemporary historical and political currents. Viewed in this light, the reaction to Robertson represents a remnant of the defeated, but not extinguished, anti-Federation sentiment, a sentiment that at the time was not doomed to failure.
Whatever else this article has achieved, it is hoped that law students of the future may have cause to challenge Harold Luntz’s assessment of Robertson as ‘the arrogant barrister plaintiff’. Pompous he no doubt was, but as this article has demonstrated, he had good reason to think the law was on his side. Nor can one can doubt the sincerity of his belief in the virtue of his cause. We may not have liked him, but we should, perhaps, respect the actions of a man who, in a different era, might have been championed as a defender of civil liberties.
This article would not be complete without an observation on another well-known aspect of the case — why the authorised report of the Privy Council decision refers to him as Robinson rather than Robertson. There is certainly no error in the Privy Council record, so the mistake must have been made at the printers. An educated guess is that the problem arose from the name ‘Nugent’, an uncommon name which Archibald Nugent Robertson shared with a reasonably well-known contemporary American writer, Nugent Robinson. The printer may well have inadvertently made the connection with Nugent Robinson, and this is what appears in the printed report. The result was, as Professor Tony Blackshield’s ditty on the case records, not only that Robertson lost, but, to add insult to injury, ‘[t]hey couldn’t even spell your name’.