In recent years, Deakin Law School (DLS) has built a strong reputation in public law. DLS’s Professor Matthew Groves, one of Australia’s most eminent public law scholars, discusses his work, the function of public law, and why it’s a solid career choice
While hot-button topics like international, criminal, and environmental law often create headlines and capture attention, public law intersects with almost every aspect of our daily lives.
From family life to finances, health to housing, public law lies at the heart of everything that happens across all tiers of government. It impacts both those who govern, and those who are governed.
Professor Matthew Groves is one of Australia’s leading scholars in public law and he has been with DLS since 2019 where he is an Alfred Deakin Professor.
An elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law, he has a highly-respected global profile and as the author or editor of more than 60 articles and 10 books, his research is amongst the most cited in Australian courts.
Prof. Groves explains that public law is simply all about the law of government.
‘It usually divides into constitutional law (what the parliament can do) and administrative law (what ministers, departments and bureaucrats can do) and it now also includes human rights. Modern government controls just about everything we do – whether you secure a visa, passport, fishing licence, social security, building permit, driver’s licence, tax refund, or receive a place in university. To me, the value of public law is simple: you get to control and question government.’
He says his late-career shift from government lawyer and policy adviser to academia was almost ‘an accidental one’ and began with an honours thesis in the area of prison law.
‘My thesis was on hearings in prison discipline cases which was an obscure area at the time that received little attention. It was before Victoria had its Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, or England its human rights statute, so the law was not about prisoners’ rights but about the legal control of the powers of prison officials.’
Using prisons as a case study to review official powers, he then expanded the topic more broadly into a PhD.
‘My father was a teacher in a youth detention centre so I was always interested in prisons and how they worked. When you have this kind of insight, you realise that what the law says and how things actually work are very different,’ he suggests.
Towards the end of his PhD, Prof. Groves was a policy adviser to the Victorian Bar Council where he worked with senior barristers, managed legal policy projects, and explored law reform.
Despite strong encouragement to take his career to the Bar, he retained a deep interest in the research of government law.
‘The one thing you learn from working in government is how often mistakes are made. My role as a government lawyer kept me interested in government law – an interest that endures today because universities are government agencies and subject to public law.’
With previous roles at Monash and La Trobe universities, Prof. Groves says universities are like a ‘living laboratory’ for an administrative law scholar and he’s often called on to be involved in student or staff disciplinary hearings.
‘Much of my work is now on fairness and bias in public decision-making.’
One of Prof. Groves’ key pieces of scholarship is the Judicial Review of Administrative Action and Government Liability, recently published in its 7th edition.
At 1500 pages, it’s an in-depth examination of all the principles underpinning judicial review of government decisions.
‘Judicial review is the process by which courts gauge whether an administrative decision is lawful. It is the “go to” book for barristers and judges in court submissions. Each edition has been cited in a couple of hundred court and tribunal decisions and it has now become the most-cited law book in Australian courts.’
Working on this publication, he concedes, has now grown into a year-round project.
‘Once we have done one edition, we start gathering new cases and material for the next edition. It’s become a bit like working on the Sydney Harbour Bridge – you get from one end to the other, then start all over again.’
Prof. Groves is also the co-author of leading administrative law casebook Control of Government Action while his 10thedited book is on the cusp of publication.
Of these ten books, he says it’s the first – Law and Government in Australia (2005) – that holds sentimental value.
‘It honours the late Professor Enid Campbell, who had a series of firsts within the Australian law profession. She was the first female professor law, the first female dean, and the only female member of the Constitutional Commission (which, as part of the bi-centennial in 1988, drafted a report about amending the constitution). The book was the first festschrift in Australia for a female legal scholar, and only the second of its kind in the entire Commonwealth. Enid was also my PhD supervisor so I was very pleased to work on this publication.’
More recently, Prof. Groves was appointed specialist adviser to the Australian Law Reform Commission on the inquiry into judicial impartiality.
‘I was invited to be a part of this because the reference is about judicial bias. I have written extensively on this because bias is part of the doctrine of natural justice … this reference is designed to ask whether the law is working and how it might be improved,’ he says.
Drawing together experts in the field, the commission conducts a comprehensive review of a particular area of law which Prof. Groves says it’s akin to a mega-research project that is released in stages.
‘First there is the discussion papers and an interim report, then extensive consultation with submissions from those who work in the area. I was involved in drafting some of the papers and also the final paper that’s now being considered by the Attorney-General. It’s really satisfying to be sitting around a table and seeing your research adopted by the people who work in the field.’
Over his career, one of biggest changes Prof. Groves says he’s observed in public law is the introduction of Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.
With the charter generating significant state-level changes, he suggests this could indicate how the introduction of a federal bill of rights may progress.
Another noted change, he adds, is the public’s attitude to government law.
‘People are now much more willing to complain about and challenge government decisions. Whether it’s going to court or to the ombudsman, most people are now prepared to fight back against government decisions they do not like.’
Because public agencies lie at the heart of human society, Prof. Groves says a career in public law can be a very fulfilling career choice.
‘The problems and cases that come up in government law can be some of the most interesting things a lawyer can ever do. A career in public law is often also more satisfying because you are motivated by more than just money. The other benefit of government law is that it is like divorce and crime – no matter how bad the economy gets – some areas will always be there.’