Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Words of wisdom from on high

The Australian High Court has made a stand against the growing spread of the nanny state with its decision yesterday on the case of the publican at Triabunna in Tasmania and his responsibilities in dealing with a customer who insisted on being allowed to drive home on his motor bike. The Court has come down strongly in support of “individual autonomy and responsibility” rather than the increasingly popular view that people should be able to blame anyone but themselves for their actions.

The key parts of yesterday’s wonderful judgment were :
…outside exceptional cases, which this case is not, persons in the position of the Proprietor and the Licensee, while bound by important statutory duties in relation to the service of alcohol and the conduct of the premises in which it is served, owe no general duty of care at common law to customers which requires them to monitor and minimise the service of alcohol or to protect customers from the consequences of the alcohol they choose to consume. That conclusion is correct because the opposite view would create enormous difficulties, …, relating to customer autonomy and coherence with legal norms. The difficulties can be summarised as follows.
Expressions like “intoxication”, “inebriation” and “drunkenness” are difficult both to define and to apply. The fact that legislation compels publicans not to serve customers who are apparently drunk does not make the introduction of a civil duty of care defined by reference to those expressions any more workable or attractive. It is difficult for an observer to assess whether a drinker has reached the point denoted by those expressions.
Some people do so faster than others. Some show the signs of intoxication earlier than others. In some the signs of intoxication are not readily apparent. With some there is the risk of confusing excitement, liveliness and high spirits with inebriation. With others, silence conceals an almost complete incapacity to speak or move. The point at which a drinker is at risk of injury from drinking can be reached in many individuals before those signs are evident. Persons serving drinks, even if they undertake the difficult process of counting the drinks served, have no means of knowing how much the drinker ingested before arrival.
Constant surveillance of drinkers is impractical. Asking how much a drinker has drunk, how much of any particular bottle or round of drinks the purchaser intends to drink personally and how much will be consumed by friends of the purchaser who may be much more or much less intoxicated than the purchaser would be seen as impertinent. Equally, to ask how the drinker feels, and what the drinker’s mental and physical capacity is, would tend to destroy peaceful relations, and would collide with the interests of drinkers in their personal privacy.
In addition, while the relatively accurate calculation of blood alcohol levels is possible by the use of breathalysers, the compulsory administration of that type of testing by police officers on the roads was bitterly opposed when legislation introduced it, and it is unthinkable that the common law of negligence could compel or sanction the use of methods so alien to community mores in hotels and restaurants.
Then there are issues connected with individual autonomy and responsibility. Virtually all adults know that progressive drinking increasingly impairs one’s judgment and capacity to care for oneself. Assessment of impairment is much easier for the drinker than it is for the outsider. It is not against the law to drink, and to some degree it is thought in most societies – certainly our society – that on balance and subject to legislative controls public drinking, at least for those with a taste for that pastime, is beneficial.
As Holmes J, writing amidst the evils of the Prohibition era, said: “Wine has been thought good for man from the time of the Apostles until recent years.” Almost all societies reveal a propensity to resort to alcohol or some other disinhibiting substance for purposes of relaxation. Now some drinkers are afflicted by the disease of alcoholism, some have other health problems which alcohol caused or exacerbates, and some behave badly after drinking. But it is a matter of personal decision and individual responsibility how each particular drinker deals with these difficulties and dangers.
Balancing the pleasures of drinking with the importance of minimising the harm that may flow to a drinker is also a matter of personal decision and individual responsibility. It is a matter more fairly to be placed on the drinker than the seller of drink. To encourage interference by publicans, nervous about liability, with the individual freedom of drinkers to choose how much to drink and at what pace is to take a very large step. It is a step for legislatures, not courts, and it is a step which legislatures have taken only after mature consideration. It would be paradoxical if members of the public who “may deliberately wish to become intoxicated and to lose the inhibitions and self-awareness of sobriety”, and for that reason are attracted to attend hotels and restaurants, were to have that desire thwarted because the tort of negligence encouraged an interfering paternalism on the part of those who run the hotels and restaurants.
A duty to take reasonable care to ensure that persons whose capacity to care for themselves is impaired are safeguarded also encounters the problems of customer autonomy and legal coherence discussed above. A further problem of legal coherence arises where legislation compels a publican to eject a drunken customer but the tort of negligence requires the person’s safety to be safeguarded by not permitting the person to drive or to walk along busy roads, and hence requires the person to be detained by some means. Even if the customer wants to leave, the publican is caught between the dilemma of committing the torts of false imprisonment or battery and committing the tort of negligence.
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