Williams v Commonwealth

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Williams v Commonwealth
Coat of Arms of Australia.svg
Court High Court of Australia
Full case name Williams v Commonwealth of Australia
Decided 20 June 2012
Citation(s) [2012] HCA 23, (2012) 248 CLR 156
Case history
Subsequent action(s) Williams v Commonwealth (No 2) [2014] HCA 23, (2014) 252 CLR 416
Court membership
Judge(s) sitting French CJ, Gummow, Hayne, Heydon, Crennan, Kiefel and Bell JJ

Williams v Commonwealth of Australia[1] (also known as the "School chaplains case") is a landmark judgment of the High Court. The matter related to executive prerogative and spending under section 61 of the Australian Constitution.[1]


As part of the National School Chaplaincy Programme, the Commonwealth government entered into a funding agreement with Scripture Union Queensland for the provision of chaplaincy services at a State school in Queensland. The agreement was challenged by Ronald Williams, the father of four children attending the school on the basis that the arrangement was not supported by s 61 of the Constitution.[2][3][4]

The parties agreed to submit a special case for determination. Relevantly, the special case asked:

  1. Does Williams have standing to challenge the Funding Agreement,
  2. Is the Funding Agreement invalid because it is (a) beyond the executive power of the Commonwealth under s 61 of the Constitution, or (b) prohibited by s 116 of the Constitution?
  3. Was the drawing of money under the Funding Agreement authorised by the relevant Appropriation Acts?
  4. Were the payments made pursuant to the Funding Agreement (a)beyond the executive power of the Commonwealth under s 61 of the Constitution, or (b) prohibited by s 116 of the Constitution?


  • Standing (Question 1): The High Court held that Mr Williams had standing to challenge the validity of the Funding Agreement.
  • Executive Power (Questions 2(a) and 4(a)): By majority, the High Court held that the Funding Agreement and payments made to SUQ under that agreement were invalid because they were beyond the executive power of the Commonwealth.
That, in the absence of statutory authority, s 61 did not empower the Commonwealth to enter into the Funding Agreement or to make the challenged payments. In particular, a majority of the Court held that the Commonwealth's executive power does not include a power to do what the Commonwealth Parliament could authorise the Executive to do.[1]
  • Freedom of Religion (Questions 2(b) and 4(b)): The High Court unanimously dismissed that part of the challenge. The High Court held that the school chaplain engaged by SUQ to provide services at the School did not hold office under the Commonwealth.[1]
  • Appropriations (Question 3): In light of the answer given to Question 1, a majority of the High Court held that it was unnecessary to answer this question.[1]

Dissent Judgment[edit]

By a majority of 6 to 1, the High Court held for Williams. Heydon J in dissent held that:

  • The plaintiff had no standing to challenge payments from the Consolidated Revenue Fund.
  • The common assumption that the Executive could spend money on anything within the legislative powers of the Commonwealth in the Constitution was correct.[1]:para 404 [5]

Legislative response[edit]

Following the High Court's decision, the Commonwealth Parliament enacted the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Act (No 3) [6] in an attempt to validate the National School Chaplaincy Programme and hundreds of other Commonwealth spending programs. Mr Williams challenged the validity and effectiveness of that legislation in Williams v Commonwealth (No 2).[7] and the court was unanimous in finding for him.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Williams v Commonwealth (School chaplains case) [2012] HCA 23, (2012) 248 CLR 156 "judgement summary" (PDF). High Court. 20 June 2012. .
  2. ^ Williams v Commonwealth of Australia [2012] HCA 23 at [2].
  3. ^ Tony Blackshield and George Williams Australian Constitutional Law and Theory, 5th edition
  4. ^ King & Wood Mallesons High Court finds Commonwealth funding arrangement invalid
  5. ^ Dober, Erik. "Limitations on Executive Power Following Williams V Commonwealth". Law and Justice Journal. Queensland University of Technology. 12 (2): 85–96. 
  6. ^ See the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Act (No 3) 2012 (Cth) s 32B
  7. ^ Williams v Commonwealth (No 2) [2014] HCA 23, (2014) 252 CLR 416 "judgement summary" (PDF). High Court. 19 June 2014. .