Publication Details

Gullett, W, Relying on fishy advice: The Ostrowski decision, Environmental and Planning Law Journal, 21(4), 2004, 245-248. Copyright Lawbook Co 2004.


On 16 June 2004, the High Court of Australia decided in Ostrowski v Palmer [2004] HCA 30 that the defence of honest and reasonable mistake of fact cannot be used on the basis that a commission of a strict liability offence was induced by the provision of misleading advice from a government agency. In the case the High Court reinstated a conviction against a Western Australian rock lobster fisherman for fishing in a marine life protection zone despite the fact that the fisherman, Mr Jeffrey Palmer, had gone to the WA Fisheries Department to find out where he could fish, and had received and acted on misleading advice from the Department. All five justices who heard the case felt compelled to uphold the principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse despite the obvious harshness of the result for Mr Palmer. The decision is instructive for its clarification of the operation of the honest and reasonable mistake defence enshrined in all Australian jurisdictions, the conduct of prosecutions where harsh penalties will be imposed on people who honestly and reasonably believe they are acting within the law, and the responsibility government departments have to provide accurate information to the public on the laws they administer.

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