Do Australia’s bankruptcy laws breach its freedom of movement obligations?

In 1972, Australia signed the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), before ratifying the Convention in 1980. In doing so, the nation agreed, among other commitments, to uphold Article 12 which codifies the freedom of movement. However, Australian bankruptcy law continues to provide that limitations may be imposed on a bankrupt’s international travel, with scholars and bankrupts alike asserting that such restrictions are too harsh and constitute a breach of Australia’s obligations under international law.

Australian bankruptcy law provides that a bankrupt’s international travel is at the discretion of the trustee of their bankruptcy. Section 77 of the Bankruptcy Act provides that a bankrupt must surrender their passport to the trustee, whilst section 272 requires that a bankrupt seek their trustee’s approval before leaving the country. The law was not designed as a punitive measure, but rather to facilitate the efficient administration of a bankrupt’s estate. This rationale was predicated on the basis that proper administration of an estate requires the bankrupt to be physically present in Australia, and that by seizing their passport, the bankrupt will be unable to flee.

Relevantly, in Re Tyndall, the court noted that:

“Restrictions upon such travel under the bankruptcy legislation must be seen as being aimed at ensuring the proper administration of the bankruptcy laws and of bankrupt estates under such laws and not as a penalty imposed upon a citizen as a consequence of inability to pay debts leading to the making of a sequestration order.”

In Weiss v Official Trustee in Bankruptcy the court said at 43:

“I am conscious of the fact that the evidence revealed in [the bankrupt’s] public examination suggests that [the bankrupt] has committed various offences against the Bankruptcy Act 1966 (Cth) which have characteristics involving nondisclosure and concealment. However, these are matters to be litigated at the proper time. It is a basic principle that a resident of Australia is entitled to expect that he may travel freely notwithstanding the fact that he is a bankrupt provided it will not lead to his staying overseas in order to defeat or delay his creditors and provided it will not interfere with the due administration of his bankrupt estate (see Tyndall’s case at 15). It is to secure the proper administration of bankrupt estates that bankrupts are required by the Bankruptcy Act 1966 (Cth) to give their passports to the trustee (par. 77(a)) and to obtain the permission of the trustee before travelling overseas (par. 272(c)). This interference with the travel of bankrupts is not for the purpose of punishing or expressing disapproval of them for offences or alleged offences against the Bankruptcy Act 1966 (Cth).”

The considerations Australian Courts often deliberate, although not exclusive, are:

  1. Is the proposed visit genuine?
  2. Is the bankrupt likely to return to Australia as promised?
  3. Will the visit hamper the administration of the estate?

Meanwhile, Article 12 of the ICCPR provides that everyone shall be free to leave any country, including their own, except where restrictions are necessary to “protect national security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.

In Re Tinkler, Nicholas J recognised that “a trustee’s decision to refuse a bankrupt permission to travel overseas is in a special category because it affects the freedom of movement of a person who may not have committed or been charged with any offence.” Further, in Re Hicks, the court noted that a trustee’s power to restrict travel can significantly affect the bankrupt’s freedom.

Accordingly, in its 2015 Report on Traditional Rights and Freedoms – Encroachments by Commonwealth Laws, the Australian Law Reform Commission called for review of section 77, asserting that the requirement ‘may not be a proportionate response to concerns about bankrupt individuals absconding.’ In doing so, it posited that travel restrictions should only be imposed subject to ‘precise criteria and judicial oversight’.

In reaching this conclusion, the ALRC relied on submissions made by Associate Professor Christopher Symes who argued that the requirement for bankrupts to surrender their passport fails to reflect the reality of the modern era. Namely, it is common for people to frequently travel internationally, and enhanced technological affordances make international communication a seamless process, rendering it possible for estates to be effectively administered even where bankrupts are not physically present in Australia.

Despite this, the Australian Government has not taken steps to adopt the ALRC’s recommendation.

On one view, the law appears to need reform but equally, Australia should be permitted to regulate these issues to protect the legal rights of various parties. Finding the right balance is the key. However, the issue is complex as while the existing model fails to accommodate commercial reality, it would also be impractical to require a court to hear an application every time one of Australia’s 15,000+ bankrupts wishes to travel abroad.

Ultimately, while no definitive solution is apparent, it is worth noting that directors of insolvent Australian companies are not subject to the same limitations as personal bankrupts. Further, in no comparable jurisdiction, including the UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, India or Ireland, is forfeiture required. As such, there is merit to the argument that bankrupt estates can be effectively administered without unduly restricting travel.

So, should the process be flipped on its head whereby Australian bankrupts are not required to surrender their passports to the trustee and free to travel as they wish? On one view the answer is yes and this could be achieved by reforming the existing practice by transferring the burden onto the bankruptcy trustee to object to travel in any event, rather than requiring the bankrupt to seek permission in the first place.

Any time a bankrupt has sought to rely on the ICCPR in supporting an application for travel, it has been held that Australia’s international agreements have no direct legal effect on domestic law as the provisions have not been incorporated in domestic legislation. Perhaps it is time that Australia updates its bankruptcy laws to not only reflect current times, but to simultaneously uphold its international human rights obligations.

 

James ConomosJames Conomos is the Managing Director of James Conomos Lawyers where he practices in the areas of insolvency, bankruptcy and commercial litigation. If you or your business needs assistance navigating a legal dispute, please do not hesitate to contact him.

3004 8201  |      |  jim@jcl.com.au