Emil Ford Lawyers

Voluntary Tribunals - what's reasonable?

At a regional show in October 2014, a horse rider/trainer rode his horse to victory in the Champion Hack event. Immediately after the event, as the horse was being led away for drug testing, the horse’s owner confessed to the rider/trainer that she had given the horse prohibited substances. Subsequently, the horse tested positive for these substances.

A disciplinary hearing against the rider/trainer and the horse’s owner was conducted by the disciplinary committee (the Committee) of the Agricultural Societies Council of NSW Ltd (the ASC). It was clear that the rider/trainer knew nothing of the administration of the prohibited substances to the horse until the owner had told him. Although the owner was, amongst other things, disqualified from competition for 12 months for her conduct, the Committee imposed the same suspension from competition on the rider/trainer.


"... a horse rider/trainer rode his horse to victory. The horses owner confessed to the rider/trainer that she had given the horse prohibited substances."

©Rita Kochmarjova - stock.adobe.com  

This became a problem when, in early April 2015, the rider/trainer was not permitted to compete in an equestrian event at the Sydney Royal Easter Show, after the show organisers were informed by the ASC of the decision. As a result, the rider/trainer appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of NSW.

Could the court hear and decide the matter?

The first issue the Supreme Court had to decide was whether the decision was justiciable - in other words, whether the court was able to hear and decide the matter.

The ASC is a not-for-profit organisation which provides support services to member show societies and related groups to assist them in their contributions to primary production. The Committee, which is run under its auspices, is a private or domestic tribunal.
As such, the ASC argued that the decision was private in character and could not be subject to administrative review.

The Supreme Court disagreed. It held that the jurisdictional basis of the exercise of the court’s discretionary power to intervene in the affairs of voluntary tribunals has long been recognised. This discretion, the court said, will more readily be exercised where (as in the present case) a person’s livelihood by and large depends upon membership of the association.

Does Wednesbury unreasonableness apply to the decision of the Committee?

In Associated Provincial Picture Ltd v Wednesbury Corporation, the Court set out the test for unreasonableness in administrative law, which has become known as ‘Wednesbury unreasonableness’.

The Supreme Court interpreted Wednesbury to mean ‘that a court will interfere in the decision of a domestic tribunal where no reasonable person could have reached the relevant decision or no reasonable person could have honestly reached the relevant decision.’

Consequently, the Supreme Court found that the decision of the Committee was unreasonable in the Wednesbury sense.

However, for other reasons, the Court did not have to decide whether to set aside the decision.

What does this mean for not-for-profits?

This serves as a timely reminder to not-for-profits to ensure that their internal disciplinary tribunals and procedures are reasonable in the Wednesbury sense. A good way of gauging this is for disciplinary tribunals to ask themselves, ‘could a reasonable person reach this decision?’ It seems that punishing someone for conduct they were unaware of is one such instance when the decision will be unreasonable.

If you have questions regarding Voluntary Tribunals or other Not-for-Profit issues please contact or .

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