A Queensland community group has been successful in a High Court appeal over the proposed expansion of the New Acland Coal Mine, which is set to be reheard after the court ruled that earlier judgements favouring the coal company had been impacted by “apprehended bias”.
New Hope Coal has long been pushing to expand the company’s New Acland coal mine in Queensland, which would almost double the amount of thermal coal produced by the mine, that is predominantly used for electricity generation.
The expansion faced legal challenges launched by local community group Oakey Coal Action Alliance, representing more than 60 local residents and landholders, which opposes the mine on the basis that it would destroy otherwise productive agricultural land. The group had been represented by the Environmental Defenders Office in the legal action.
In delivering a unanimous decision on Wednesday, the High Court ruled that decisions on the coal mine expansion made by earlier courts had been affected by apprehended bias.
Concerns had been raised about the conduct of the Land Court when it first undertook hearings into the proposed expansion of the New Acland Coal Mine, which faced intense media criticism from News Limited owned newspapers over the proposed length of hearings.
The Land Court had received high volumes of objections to the coal mine expansion, and ten weeks had been set aside to hear the case, while the Courier Mail ran stories criticising the court, including at least one that claimed the entire Queensland economy was at risk.
The presiding judge of the Land Court had spoken openly about his struggles accounting for the vast amount of evidence and representations being made to the court over the coal mine expansion, while at the same time as facing stiff criticism from News Limited papers.
In a standalone judgement, High Court justice James Edelman said that due to the way the original hearings had been conducted, the Oakey Coal Action Alliance had not “had its day in court”, and that it had not had the opportunity to present all of its arguments.
“These matters are insufficient to justify the highly exceptional course of this court refusing a rehearing for a party whose hearing was decided other than independently and impartially. Indeed, it cannot be said that Oakey Coal Action has “had its day in court” or had lost all of its grounds before an independent and impartial tribunal,” Justice Edelman said.
In a technical legal judgement, the High Court ruled that because the earlier decisions on the expansion had been impacted by apprehended bias, the Queensland Land Court must reconsider the challenge to the coal mine expansion afresh.
The court ruled that an earlier decision by the Queensland Court of Appeal had erred in asking the Land Court to reconsider the coal mine regarding just a limited number of issues and that the Land Court must hear again in its entirety, to ensure the Oakey Coal Action Alliance could put forward its full arguments.
Environmental Defenders Office managing lawyer Sean Ryan, welcomed the decision.
“It is fundamental to the administration of justice that our client and the other objectors have access to an independent decision unclouded by apprehensions of bias or unfairness,” Ryan said.
“Our client and the other objectors can now look forward to the opportunity to present their evidence to a fresh Land Court of the impacts of this coal mine on the local farming area and on the rest of Queensland through climate change.”
The High Court did not consider the merits of the decision and made no comment on the appropriateness of the coal mine expansion itself, however the Oakey Coal Action Alliance claimed the outcome as a significant win, particularly as New Acland Coal was ordered to pay the group’s legal costs.
“It is a better outcome than we could have hoped for,” Oakey Coal Action Alliance’s secretary Paul King said.
“We have won on all counts and New Hope has been ordered to pay costs [of the appeal] to the High Court.”
“The High Court’s decision is, in our view, vindication that the Darling Downs is for farming – not coal mining.”
President of Oakey Coal Action Alliance, Aileen Harrison said that the group hopes that it can be successful in the next round of legal challenges.
“We hope that we can win from here on in and get the mine stopped, so we can save our water and land, and leave it for future generations,” Harrison said.
The New Acland coal mine is approaching the end of its currently accessible reserves. New Hope has sought to expand the mine to continue coal production, with the company already considering worker redundancies as output declines.