Australia: Determining the jurisdiction of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal

Last Updated: 14 December 2009
Article by Robert Brigden and Andrew Klein

In Sellick v Australian Postal Corporation [2009] FCAFC 146, the Full Federal Court held the AAT did not have jurisdiction to review claims regarding additional conditions made on top of those provided in the original claim.

Mr Sellick's claims

The first claim

Mr Sellick lodged a claim in respect of pain in his right shoulder on 3 November 2003. This claim was initially accepted by his employer, Australia Post. Compensation for this injury was paid until October 2004, when Australia Post decided, on the basis of available medical evidence, that the effect of the shoulder injury had ceased. In reaching this conclusion the decision maker accepted that the medical evidence supported the existence of a pre-existing degenerative disease of the thoracic spine, but that the claim should be confined to the shoulder injury, which had resolved.

The second claim

Mr Sellick lodged a second claim on 24 June 2004. In this claim Mr Sellick stated that he had suffered injury in the form of two hernias while he was 'walking and delivering mail'. Australia Post disputed the existence of the hernias. The decision maker was of the opinion that Mr Sellick's symptoms were a manifestation of osteoarthritic changes to his spine, hips and sacroiliac joints – not a hernia – and so denied compensation.

The first AAT decision

In its initial decision, the AAT accepted that the pain in Mr Sellick's shoulder and thoracic spine was caused by three different conditions, being:

  • A soft tissue injury to his shoulder.
  • A degenerative condition in his spine.
  • A sprained interspinous ligament.

The AAT found that the soft tissue injury had resolved but decided it could assess Mr Sellick's claim on the basis that it extended to include a claim for compensation for the effects of the other two conditions.

The AAT's decision was appealed by Australia Post to the Federal Court.

The initial Federal Court decision

Justice Bennett referred to the findings of the AAT that the soft tissue injury to the right shoulder had resolved, and concluded that the AAT had failed to give reasons for its conclusion that Australia Post was nevertheless liable to pay compensation. At [71] her Honour said:

In finding liability under the SRC Act for the additional conditions which had not been the subject of a notice of injury (s 53), claim for compensation (s 54), a determination under s 60, the first reviewable decision (s 62) and an application to the Tribunal (s 64), the Tribunal failed to observe the limitations on its jurisdiction flowing from these sections of the SRC Act and the procedural prerequisites to entitlement to compensation under the SRC Act.

Her Honour concluded that Australia Post could not be liable to continue to pay compensation for an injury which had resolved. She found that the AAT:

... failed to give reasons for its conclusion that the additional conditions were work-related and were related to the claimed injury and that Australia Post was liable for those additional injuries. That failure constitutes an error of law.

In respect of the second claim, Justice Bennett found that the AAT's conclusion that the hernias were due to lifting was not supported by any evidence, and that an injury from lifting had not been the subject of the original claim. Rather, Mr Sellick had attributed his hernias to walking. Her Honour concluded (at [82]):

The notice of injury under s 53 of the SRC Act that gave rise to the claim under s 54 was limited to injury from walking. The decision that Mr Sellick was entitled to compensation for the claimed injury was an error of law.

Justice Bennett also found that a failure by the AAT to consider arguments by Australia Post that Mr Sellick's pain or difficulty while walking was caused by osteoarthritis of his hip and was not work related, was a failure to consider an aspect of Australia Post's case. The matter was remitted to the AAT.

The second AAT decision

In respect of Mr Sellick's first claim, following the remittal of the matter, the AAT recognised that, in light of the ruling of Justice Bennet, it did not have jurisdiction to consider compensation for conditions which had not been the subject of the original claim; that is, conditions other than Mr Sellick's shoulder injury.

Mr Sellick sought to establish, in respect of his second claim, that his hernia had been caused by lifting bags of mail, not walking as originally claimed.

The AAT did not traverse the issue of whether Mr Sellick's initial description of how his injury had come about limited its jurisdiction to consider the injury arising in another way, as it was not satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that Mr Sellick had been required to do any substantial lifting as part of his delivery duties, which could have contributed to his hernia.

The AAT's second decision was then appealed to the Federal Court and heard by a full bench (Justices Mansfield, Buchanan and Mckerracher).

The second Federal Court decision

Justice Buchanan considered that the essential question on appeal was whether the AAT was correct in law, in the remitted proceedings, to regard itself as bound not to give further consideration to the shoulder injury in light of the decision in the first Federal Court proceedings.

In dismissing the appeal, Justice Buchanan said:

In my view, the AAT was legally bound in the way which it identified. Her Honour's ruling that the jurisdiction of the AAT was limited to a consideration of the consequences of an injury which was the subject of the claim (the shoulder injury) was a fundamental step towards her conclusion that reasons had not been given for, nevertheless, finding Australia Post to be liable. The identification, in her Honour's concluding remarks, that the specific error of law made by the AAT was its failure to give reasons, should be regarded as incorporating the legal elements which sustained that conclusion.

The Full Court also found that there was no error of law in the way the AAT had dealt with Mr Sellick's second claim regarding his hernias.

Justice Buchanan did however conclude, in respect of the second claim, that while there may be a real question whether the AAT's jurisdiction is confined by the description given to the claimed condition, it may not be necessary for an applicant to describe a condition with absolute precision if it is otherwise clear that there is a sufficient connection with his or her employment.


Where the AAT considers questions of liability and entitlement to compensation for injuries that are not the subject of a notice of injury (section 53), a claim for compensation (section 54), a determination under section 60, a reviewable decision (section 62) and an application to the AAT (section 64), it will fail to observe the limitations on its own jurisdiction and the procedural prerequisites to entitlement to compensation under the SRC Act.

This decision emphasises the precedent established in Lees v Comcare (1999) 56 ALD 74, that the AAT's jurisdiction for review of claims for workers' compensation is limited to claims insofar as they are originally made.

© DLA Phillips Fox

DLA Phillips Fox is one of the largest legal firms in Australasia and a member of DLA Piper Group, an alliance of independent legal practices. It is a separate and distinct legal entity. For more information visit

This publication is intended as a first point of reference and should not be relied on as a substitute for professional advice. Specialist legal advice should always be sought in relation to any particular circumstances.

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