Amalgamated Society of Engineers v Adelaide Steamship Co Ltd

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Amalgamated Society of Engineers v Adelaide Steamship Co Ltd
Coat of Arms of Australia.svg
Court High Court of Australia
Full case name The Amalgamated Society of Engineers v The Adelaide Steamship Company Limited and Ors
Decided 31 August 1920
Citation(s) (1920) 28 CLR 129;
[1920] HCA 54
Case history
Prior action(s) none
Subsequent action(s) none
Case opinions

(5:1) the States, when parties to an industrial dispute in fact, are subject to the Commonwealth legislation passed pursuant to s51(xxxv) of the Constitution.
(per Isaacs J; Knox CJ, Rich & Starke agreeing;
Higgins J concurring separately;
Gavan Duffy J dissenting)

Court membership
Judge(s) sitting Knox CJ, Isaacs, Higgins, Gavan Duffy, Rich, Starke JJ

Amalgamated Society of Engineers v Adelaide Steamship Co Ltd (1920) 28 CLR 129 (commonly known as the Engineers' Case) was a landmark decision by the High Court of Australia on 31 August 1920. The immediate issue concerned the Commonwealth's power under s51(xxxv) of the Constitution but the Court did not confine itself to that question, using the opportunity to roam broadly over constitutional interpretation.[1]

Widely regarded as one of the most important cases ever decided by the High Court of Australia, it swept away the earlier doctrines of implied intergovernmental immunities and reserved State powers, thus paving the way for fundamental changes in the nature of federalism in Australia.


The Engineers' Case arose out of a claim lodged by a union of engineers in the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration for an award relating to 844 employers across Australia.[2] In Western Australia, the employers included three governmental employers. The question was whether a Commonwealth law made under the "conciliation and arbitration" power regarding industrial disputes, section 51(xxxv), could authorise the making of an award binding the three employers. The case came before the Full Court on a case stated under section 18 of the Judiciary Act.


The joint majority judgment of the Court was written by Isaacs J. He was joined by Knox CJ, Rich & Starke JJ. Higgins J wrote a separate opinion but came to a similar conclusion. Gavan Duffy J dissented.

The joint majority opinion of the Court reviewed the jurisprudence of the Griffith Court and declared:[3]

The judgment then returned to first principles on how the Constitution is to be interpreted. The use of American precedent was rejected in favour of applying the settled rules of construction that gave primacy to the text of the Constitution and anchored its interpretation to its express words.

Some "reservations" were made about State prerogatives and special Commonwealth powers (like over taxation); the reservations eventually became subsumed within some general intergovernmental immunity rules to emerge as the Melbourne Corporation doctrine.

The Court considered its earlier decision in D'Emden v Pedder,[4] which had been the foundation case for the original intergovernmental immunities doctrine. It has been said that Engineers attacks the reasoning in D'Emden, but rationalises the conclusion. A later case (Attorney-General for Queensland v Attorney-General for the Commonwealth)[5] that applied D'Emden was attacked as resting on opinions "as to hopes and expectations respecting vague external conditions".

The joint majority judgment then went on to establish that the Crown in its various capacities is bound by the Constitution. The power of the Commonwealth to bind the States was seen as an aspect of the general conclusion. Its reasoning invoked the notion of the one and indivisible Crown, which is no longer part of Australian jurisprudence, but that conclusion is capable of being reached without such a notion.

Passages of the joint majority judgment discuss the paramountcy of Commonwealth law, which foreshadow the later expansion of Constitution s109 inconsistency doctrine in Clyde Engineering Co Ltd v Cowburn:[6] The language of the D'Emden v Pedder non-interference principle lives on in the second ("rights impairment") test of inconsistency.[1]


Former Chief Justice of Australia Sir Anthony Mason has written:[7]

The combination of literal interpretation and a broad construction of Commonwealth powers led to the Commonwealth assuming a dominant position in the Australian federation vis-a-vis the states. The Engineers Case ushered in a period of literal interpretation of the Constitution. Literal interpretation and legalism (of which Sir John Latham was the chief exponent) were characteristic of the Court's constitutional interpretation for the greater part of the 20th century.

The decision has had its critics. In 1937, R.T.E. Latham wrote:[8]

It cut off Australian constitutional law from American precedents, a copious source of thoroughly relevant learning, in favour of crabbed English rules of statutory interpretation, which are one of the sorriest features of English law, and are... particularly unsuited to the interpretation of a rigid Constitution.... The fundamental criticism of the decision is that its real ground is nowhere stated in the majority judgment.

On the question of the use of American and other foreign precedents, Mason wrote:

Before the Engineers Case, the Court made considerable use of United States authorities. Following the Engineers Case, references to United States authority were much less frequent.

The majority remarked: "American authorities... are not a secure basis on which to build fundamentally with respect to our own Constitution [but] in secondary... matters they may... afford considerable light and assistance."[9] Much later, in the 1980s and the 1990s, the Court made extensive use of foreign authorities and comparative law: "This use of foreign precedents was associated with the demise of the Privy Council appeal and the Court's recognition of its responsibility to declare the law for Australia."[7]

Despite the case, doctrine can be based on an implication from the text or structure of the Constitution. Sir Owen Dixon, in particular, was critical of any such overblown reading of Engineers in this oft-quoted passage: "The prima-facie rule is that a power to legislate with respect to a given subject enables the Parliament to make laws which, upon that subject, affect the operations of the States and their agencies. That, as I have pointed out more than once, is the effect of the Engineers' Case stripped of embellishment and reduced to the form of a legal proposition."[10] Earlier, he had written: "We should avoid pedantic and narrow constructions in dealing with an instrument of government and I do not see why we should be fearful about making implications."[11]

Writing in 1971, Windeyer J made the following assessment of Engineers:[12]

The Colonies which in 1901 became States in the new Commonwealth were not before then sovereign bodies in any strict legal sense; and certainly the Constitution did not make them so. They were self-governing colonies which, when the Commonwealth came into existence as a new Dominion of the Crown, lost some of their former powers and gained no new powers. They became components of a federation, the Commonwealth of Australia. It became a nation. Its nationhood was in the course of time to be consolidated in war, by economic and commercial integration, by the unifying influence of federal law, by the decline of dependence upon British naval and military power and by a recognition and acceptance of external interests and obligations. With these developments the position of the Commonwealth, the federal government, has waxed; and that of the States has waned. In law that is a result of the paramount position of the Commonwealth Parliament in matters of concurrent power. And this legal supremacy has been reinforced in fact by financial dominance. That the Commonwealth would, as time went on, enter progressively, directly or indirectly, into fields that had formerly been occupied by the States, was from an early date seen as likely to occur. This was greatly aided after the decision in the Engineers' Case [1920] HCA 54; (1920) 28 CLR 129, which diverted the flow of constitutional law into new channels. I have never thought it right to regard the discarding of the doctrine of the implied immunity of the States and other results of the Engineers' Case [1920] HCA 54; (1920) 28 CLR 129 as the correction of antecedent errors or as the uprooting of heresy. To return today to the discarded theories would indeed be an error and the adoption of a heresy. But that is because in 1920 the Constitution was read in a new light, a light reflected from events that had, over twenty years, led to a growing realization that Australians were now one people and Australia one country and that national laws might meet national needs. For lawyers the abandonment of old interpretations of the limits of constitutional powers was readily acceptable. It meant only insistence on rules of statutory interpretation to which they were well accustomed. But reading the instrument in this light does not to my mind mean that the original judges of the High Court were wrong in their understanding of what at the time of federation was believed to be the effect of the Constitution and in reading it accordingly. As I see it the Engineers' Case, looked at as an event in legal and constitutional history, was a consequence of developments that had occurred outside the law courts as well as a cause of further developments there. That is not surprising for the Constitution is not an ordinary statute: it is a fundamental law.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Booker, Keven; Glass, Arthur; Watt, Rob (1998). "3 at paras [3.25]-[3.36]". Federal Constitutional Law: An Introduction (2nd ed.). Sydney: Federation Press. 
  2. ^ Amalgamated Society of Engineers v Adelaide Steamship Co Ltd ("Engineers' case") [1920] HCA 54 28 CLR 129.
  3. ^ Engineers' Case [1920] HCA 54 28 CLR 129, p 141-142
  4. ^ D’Emden v Pedder [1904] HCA 1 1 CLR 91.
  5. ^ Attorney-General for Queensland v Attorney-General for the Commonwealth [1915] HCA 39; 28 CLR 129.
  6. ^ Clyde Engineering Co v Cowburn [1926] HCA 6; 37 CLR 466.
  7. ^ a b Anthony Mason "High Court of Australia: A Personal Impression of its first 100 years" (2003) 27 Melbourne University Law Review 864 at 873-4
  8. ^ quoted in Winterton, Lee, Glass and Thomson, Australian Federal Constitutional Law: Commentary and Materials (Law Book Co. 1999) at 757
  9. ^ Engineer's Case [1920] HCA 54 28 CLR 129, p146 (Knox CJ, Isaacs, Rich and Starke JJ)
  10. ^ Melbourne Corporation [1947] HCA 26; 74 CLR 31, at p78 (Dixon J).
  11. ^ The Airways Case [1945] HCA 41 (1945) 71 CLR 29 71 CLR 29, 85 (Dixon J).
  12. ^ Victoria v Commonwealth (the Payroll Tax case) [1971] HCA 16 122 CLR 353 at 396-7 (Windeyer J).

External links[edit]