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Social Media Liability: Are you liable for comments made on your Facebook page?

The realm of social media liability has been a relatively untouched legal subject up until a recent landmark case in the Supreme Court of New South Wales. The case of Voller v Nationwide News Pty Ltd; Voller v Fairfax Media Publications Pty Ltd; Voller v Australian News Channel Pty Ltd [2019] NSWSC 766 held that three media companies were classed as the ‘publishers’ of comments made by the public on their Facebook posts for the purposes of a defamation class.

The three companies typically used their facebook page to disseminate links to news stories, which would also invite the public to leave comments on their public facebook page or their respective news website. Liability in defamation arises because the actual publication of the material is defamatory in nature, and ‘publication’ occurs when the material is delivered to the public. In this case, the Court found that ‘publication’ only occurs in respect of the comments when the comment is placed in a form that is easy to understand and able to be viewed by the public, which is done by the owner of the facebook page as opposed to the actual author of the comments.
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Interlocutory Injunction at the Land and Environment Court

An interlocutory injunction is a type of an interim relief that the Court can order, usually to preserve the status quo until a formal hearing can be conducted. In this article, we will take a look at the elements of the interlocutory injunctions in the planning and environmental law context, and discuss some of the common issues councils may face when applying for interlocutory injunctions.

The Elements

There are, in essence, two elements that must be positively addressed before the Court will grant an interlocutory injunction.

Firstly, the applicant for the interlocutory injunction must prove there is a serious question to be tried. It is not necessary, for the purpose of addressing this element, to show that the applicant has a strong case. It would be sufficient to show that the applicant has a prima facie case by identifying the statutory or other legal rights on which the final relief are based.

Secondly, the applicant must show that the balance of convenience favours the applicant. In the planning and environmental law context, the Court would often consider the following non-exhaustive factors:
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The Importance of Grampian conditions

The recent case of Visionary Investment Group Pty Ltd v Wollongong City Council [2019] discussed the flexibility of imposing a condition of consent when there is insufficient information provided with the development application.

The case involved a development application for a community title subdivision. During the duration of the proceedings, the applicant filed and produced a wide variety of amended plans/reports in support of its application.

One particular issue related to insufficient detail provided by the applicant in respect of ‘upstream’ impacts of off-site wastewater and water supply infrastructure which needed to be built in order to service the proposed subdivided lots. The design for the wastewater site was not put before the Court and Council argued that the development application could not be granted as these plans needed to be assessed.

In reply, the applicant argued that under the processes in Division 5.1 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 the Court has the ability to grant consent based on the fact they are able to give proper consideration and assessment of the ‘upstream impacts’. Noting this, the applicant stated that any consent granted could include conditions necessary to ensure that the div 5.1 processes were followed before commencing development.
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Clarification on the Meaning of “Land” in Section 57 of the Heritage Act

The 19 June 2019 decision of Stamford Property Services Pty Ltd v Mulpha Australia Ltd [2019] has assisted in further understanding the definition of ‘land’ within s57(1)(e) of the Heritage Act 1977 (Act). Where s57(1)(e) provides a requirement that approval for development must be obtained “in relation to the land” if it is a State heritage item or is subject to an Interim Heritage Order (IHO).

Meaning in Relation to s57(1)(e)

On appeal from the Land and Environment Court (LEC), the Court of Appeal found that within s57(1)(e) the meaning of ‘land’ refers to the physical part of the land which the State heritage item or IHO applies. This is contrary to the decision in the LEC which defined ‘land’ as the whole cadastral review with a relevant link to the heritage item. Furthermore, all judges disagreed with the LEC which held that the word ‘land’ cannot be determined by evaluating the circumstances within each individual case, but must be applied in an overarching manner to all cases to not detriment of the efficacy of the Act.
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Recent amendments made to the Local Government Act 1993 No 30

The Local Government Amendment Bill 2019 (NSW) (‘Bill’) which was assented to and commenced on 25 June 2019 has amended a number of sections of the Local Government Act 1993 No 30 (NSW) (‘LGA’). The Bill amends the LGA in relation to election planning, rates, tendering requirements, mutual recognition of approvals as well as other regulatory matters and other purposes.

Under the Bill, a total of 21 amendments to the LGA were introduced. 14 of such amendments have already been implemented into the updated LGA whilst the remaining seven amendments are yet to commence on a day or days to be appointed by proclamation.

Changes to election planning

The new section 296 (5A) has been inserted into the LGA to enable a council to enter into an arrangement with the Electoral Commissioner to administer the election of ordinary councillors in 2020, or all elections including that election, if the council resolves to do so on or before 1 October 2019 and enters into the arrangement on or before 1 January 2020. Under the previous LGA, an arrangement would have been required to have been entered into by June 2019.
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No ‘Character of the Local Area’ in diverse neighbourhoods

Under clause 16A of the State Environmental Planning Policy (Affordable Rental Housing) 2009, a consent authority must not consent to a development if the design is incompatible with the character of the local area.

In the recent decision of Louden Pty Ltd v Canterbury-Bankstown Council [2018] NSWLEC 1285 (Louden), clause 16A played a prominent role in Commissioner Gray’s judgement. In that case, the Council had refused the development, inter alia, because the development’s design did not match the local aesthetic. The Council relied on the argument that the setbacks and design of the proposal were inconsistent with other residential flat buildings in the local area.

However, Commissioner Gray rejected this argument in favour of the Applicant’s reliance on Project Venture Developments v Pittwater Council [2005] NSWLEC 191 (Project Venture). There, Roseth SC stated [at 22]: Compatibility is thus different from sameness. It is generally accepted that buildings can exist together in harmony without having the same density, scale or appearance, though as the difference in these attributes increases, harmony is harder to achieve.
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Case Note: Port Macquarie-Hastings Council v Mansfield

In the recent decision of Port Macquarie-Hastings Council v Mansfield [2019] NSWCCA 7 (Mansfield), the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal overturned an earlier decision of the Land and Environment Court in relation to the power of councils to compel production of documents under the former section 119J (now section 9.22) of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (NSW) (the EPA Act).

Background

Mr Mansfield was accused of carrying out a development that was prohibited under the Local Environmental Plan. After some investigations and before the commencement of the criminal proceedings, Council’s investigation officer, Craig Henderson, issued a number of notices under section 119J (now section 9.22) of the EPA Act. From the documents produced under those notices, Council learned two companies may have further documents relating to the alleged offence and issued a subpoena to each of the two companies after criminal prosecution had commenced.

Mr Mansfield challenged the validity of the two subpoenas in the Land and Environment Court, primarily on the basis that Council must not rely on the information gathered from section 119J notices to issue the subpoena because the section 119J notices were not validly issued in the first place.
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Compulsory changes to NSW Parking Fines – 10 Minute Grace Period

Starting 31 January 2019, amendments to section 123C of the Road Transport (General) Regulation 2013 were introduced by Road Transport (General) Amendment (Parking Fine Flexibility and Grace Period) Regulation 2018 which states that Councils will now be required to implement a regulated 10 minute grace period for certain paid parking offences that have a duration of more than one hour. These changes will affect all parking fine issuing authorities including NSW government agencies, Local Councils and Universities. These changes are compulsory and are not related to the recent NSW governments ‘opt in’ provisions to reduce the amount of parking fines.

What this means for you?

  1. Councils should ensure that their authorised issuing staff are made aware of these changes when issuing parking fines from 31 January 2019.
  2. Councils are encouraged to update any relevant manuals, procedures and systems that are involved with respect to parking fines.

Conditions for 10 minute grace period:

Councils are only required to enforce the 10 minute grace period if the following parking conditions are met:
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