Judicial intervention in the affairs of unincorporated religious associations in New South Wales

Tong, Robert (2012) Judicial intervention in the affairs of unincorporated religious associations in New South Wales. Professional Doctorate thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


The leading Australian High Court case of Cameron v Hogan (1934) 51 CLR 358 confirmed that associations which are 'social, sporting, political, scientific, religious, artistic or humanitarian in character’, and not formed ‘for private gain or material advantage’, are usually formed on a basis of mutual consent. Unless there is some clear, positive indication that the members wish to relate to each other in a legal fashion, the rules of the association will not be treated as an enforceable contract in contrast to the rules of incorporated bodies.

Australian unincorporated associations experiencing internal disputes, like those in most other common law jurisdictions, have found courts reluctant to provide a remedy unless there is a proprietary interest or trust to protect. This is further compounded by the judicial view that an unincorporated association has no legal recognition as a ‘juristic person’. The right to hold property and the ability to sue and be sued are incidences of this recognition. By contrast, the law recognises ‘artificial’ legal persons such as corporations, who are given rights to hold property and to sue and be sued. However, when a number of individuals associate together for a non-commercial, lawful purpose, but not by way of a corporate structure, legal recognition ‘as a group’ is denied.

Since 1934, a significant number of cases have distinguished or otherwise declined to follow this precedent of the High Court. A trenchant criticism is found in McKinnon v Grogan [1974] 1 NSWLR 295, 298 where Wootten J said that ‘citizens are entitled to look to the courts for the same assistance in resolving disputes about the conduct of sporting, political and social organisations as they can expect in relation to commercial institutions’. According to Wootten J at 298, if disputes are not settled by the courts, this would create a ‘legal-no-man's land, in which disputes are settled not in accordance with justice and the fulfilment of deliberately undertaken obligations, but by deceit, craftiness, and an arrogant disregard of rights’.

Cameron v Hogan was decided in 1934. There is an increasing volume of first instance cases which distinguish or, in the words of Palmer J, ‘just pay lip service’ to this High Court decision. (Coleman v Liberal Party of Australia (2007) 212 FLR 271, 278). The dissenting cases seem to call for a judicial policy initiative. This would require recognition by judges that voluntary associations play a significant role in society and that members have a legitimate, enforceable expectation that the rules of the association will be observed by members and in the last resort, enforced by the courts without the need to prove contractual intention, the existence of a trust or the existence of a right of a proprietary nature.

This thesis asks: what legal, as distinct from political, redress does an ordinary member have, when a rule is made or a process followed which is contrary to the underlying doctrines and philosophies embodied in the constitutional documents of an unincorporated religious association? When, if at all, will a court intervene to ensure doctrinal purity or to supervise the daily life of a large unincorporated religious association? My research objective is to examine and analyse leading cases and relevant legislation on the enforceability of the constitutions of large, unincorporated, religious associations with particular reference to the Anglican Church in New South Wales. Given its numerical size, wide geographical spread and presence since the foundation of New South Wales, the Anglican Church in New South Wales, contains a sufficient variety of ‘real life’ situations to be representative of the legal issues posed by Cameron v Hogan which may be faced by other large, unincorporated, religious associations in New South Wales.

In contemporary society, large, unincorporated, religious associations play an important community role. The resolution of internal disputes in such associations should not remain captive to legal doctrines of an earlier age.

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ID Code: 60064
Item Type: QUT Thesis (Professional Doctorate)
Supervisor: Duncan, Bill & McGregor-Lowndes, Myles
Keywords: religious assocations, churches, judicial intervention, New South Wales
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Law
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 17 May 2013 00:13
Last Modified: 03 Sep 2015 04:41

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