Longley & Ors v Chief Executive, Department of Environment and Heritage Protection & Anor; Longley & Ors v Chief Executive, Department of Environment and Heritage Protection [2018] QCA 32.


Prior to its winding up, Linc Energy Limited (in liq) (Linc) had owned and operated an underground coal gasification project near Chinchilla.  A necessity of that operation was that Linc required environmental authorities issued under the Environmental Protection Act 1994 (Qld) (the EPA).

An Environmental Protection Order (EPO) was issued by the Chief Executive of the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (Chief Executive) pursuant to section 358 of the EPA on 13 May 2016.  The effect of that EPO was that Linc was compelled to comply with its duties arising from the activities undertaken on the land to take all reasonable and practicable measures to prevent or minimise harm arising from the carrying out of those activities.

Shortly after the EPO was issued, the appellant liquidators were appointed to Linc.  On 30 June 2016, the liquidators gave notice disclaiming, amongst other things, the land at Chinchilla and the environmental authorities under the EPA which it held for the site.  The liquidators contended that the consequence of the disclaimer under section 568(1) of the Corporations Act 2001 (CA) was that they were relieved of the requirements of the EPO, on the basis that they constituted “liabilities… in respect of the disclaimer property” as defined by section 568D of the CA.

The Chief Executive contended that notwithstanding the disclaimer of the property described above, Linc remained bound to comply with the EPO.  The liquidators then applied to the Supreme Court of Queensland for a direction pursuant to section 511 CA that they would be justified in not complying with the EPO.

The proceedings at first instance

The liquidators contended, in summary, that they were relieved of their obligations under the EPO issued under the EPA (a Queensland Act) as a result of their disclaimer of the land and associated environmental authorities under section 568(1) of the CA (a Commonwealth Act), because of the operation of section 109 of the Constitution, which provides that:

When a law of a State is inconsistent with a law of the Commonwealth, the latter shall prevail, and the former shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be invalid.

In opposition to that, the Chief Executive (joined by the Attorney-General for the State of Queensland who had been granted leave to intervene) contended that section 5G of the CA applied such that the provisions of the EPA in fact prevailed over the right to disclaim (and its attendant consequences) under the CA.  Relevantly, sub-section 5G(11) provides:

A provision of the Corporations legislation does not operate in a State or Territory to the extent necessary to ensure that no inconsistency arises between:

  • the provision of the Corporations legislation; and
  • a provision of a law of the State or Territory that would, but for this subsection, be inconsistent with the provision of the Corporations legislation.

Justice Jackson found for the Chief Executive at first instance.

The decision on appeal

The Court of Appeal unanimously decided to reverse the decision below and found in favour of the liquidators.

The Court of Appeal found, in summary, that:

  1. the obligations arising from the EPO were liabilities in respect of disclaimed property, irrespective of whether the environmental authority itself constituted disclaimed property.

In delivering the leading judgment, Justice McMurdo determined:

Once the land and MDL had been disclaimed, there was no activity which could be carried out by Linc to which the general environmental duty could attach, and for which this EPO could have operated in the pursuit of its stated purpose. The connection between the disclaimed property and the liabilities under the EPO is thereby clear and immediate: the liabilities under the EPO were premised upon Linc’s carrying out activity which it could not and would not carry out, once the land and the MDL had been disclaimed.

  1. Once disclaimed, section 568D of the CA provided that Linc’s obligations under the EPO, being liabilities in respect of the disclaimer property, terminated. It was not possible to ‘sever’ or selectively terminate some liabilities but not others.

Emphasising that the State had readily admitted and alleged that a consequence of the disclaimer of the land at Chinchilla was that it had passed to the State, Justice McMurdo, found:

It could not have been intended that by a disclaimer of property, a liquidator could cause a company to lose all of its rights and interests in or in respect of the property, but remain burdened by a liability in respect of it. That would be an absurd operation of a law which has a long recognised purpose of enabling the company to rid itself of burdensome obligations. To put the matter another way, as a matter of construction, s 5G cannot displace the effect of s 568D on some or all of a company’s liabilities but not upon the other effects of a disclaimer. Consequently, the appellants are correct in submitting that s 5G(11) could be applied in this case only by impugning the disclaimer itself.


The High Court of Australia dismissed the Chief Executive’s application for Special Leave to Appeal the decision of the Queensland Court of Appeal on 14 September 2018.

As a result, it remains to be seen whether the decision elicits a response from state legislatures or environmental authorities seeking to bind liquidators to remedial actions required under an EPO notwithstanding disclaimer, whether by legislative intervention or by careful phrasing of the EPO to the effect that its requirements do not create liabilities in property capable of disclaimer.The next battleground may well be whether valid disclaimer of property has occurred in particular instances.  No express finding was made on that point by Justice Jackson at first instance because the matter had proceeded on the premise that disclaimer had occurred because of admissions made by the respondents.  Yet notwithstanding the “unambiguous” admissions made, the respondents sought in the appeal to depart from that position and put in issue the disclaimer, which the Court of Appeal did not permit.