In Queensland those who wish to work with, or foster, children must have a Blue Card. A Blue Card is required even if this ‘work’ is undertaken on a voluntary basis.

Obvious Applicants include those who work in education and childcare but also include sports coaches and administrators. Similar schemes are in place across the country.

When assessing the Applicant’s suitability the government agency responsible, Blue Card Services, considers the applicant’s previous criminal history (broadly defined[1]) and other matters they deem to be relevant (such as known mental health issues).

The whole process is governed by the Working with Children (Risk Management and Screening) Act[2]. This act, quite properly, acknowledges that applicants with a criminal history should not, due to that reason alone, be excluded from holding a Blue Card.

Central to the safeguards within the Act are a list of ‘disqualifying’ offences[3]. These offences are, as you would expect, largely offences against children. Convictions for these offences disqualify a person from receiving or holding a Blue Card. A tier below disqualifying offences are ‘serious[4]’ offences. If convicted of a serious offence there is a presumption against the grant of a Blue Card placing a reverse onus on the applicant.[5]

Unsurprisingly the demarcation of serious and disqualifying offences contemplates a nexus between prior offending against children and the potential of placing children at risk in the future.

Those who have not been convicted of such an offence, irrespective of their other criminal history, are, prima facie, entitled to a Blue Card.  This common sense approach strikes the correct balance between protecting children on the one hand and the rehabilitation of the offender on the other.

In the wake of the tragic murder of foster child Tialeigh Palmer, the Queensland Government announced a Review of the Blue Card System. That review led to 81 recommendations and, perhaps more pertinently for the average applicant, ushered in a new era of increased scrutiny. This increased scrutiny has created a tension between the wording of the Act and its implementation.

The issue which has arisen, post Tialeigh Palmer, is the use of s221(2) which reads:

(2) If subsection (1)(b) or (c) applies to the person and the chief executive is satisfied it is an exceptional case in which it would not be in the best interests of children for the chief executive to issue a positive notice, the chief executive must issue a negative notice to the person. [6]

It is this discretion vested in Blue Card Services which is contributing to huge delays, unjust outcomes and the issuing of more negative notices. Put simply, the bar for ‘exceptional case’ seems to be lowering at an alarming rate.

In the recent decision of FLS v Directional General, Department of Justice and Attorney-General[7] Member Pennell summarized[8] how QCAT has considered the concept of an ‘exceptional case’ (citations omitted):

Whether the circumstances of a person’s case would render it an exceptional case is the threshold to be applied when the tribunal is deciding whether an applicant should be issued with a positive notice. In applying that principle, regard must be given to the intent, purpose and design of the legislation. The tribunal need only weigh up the competing facts and apply the balance of probabilities principle.

Although the term “exceptional case” is not defined in the Working with Children Act, the phrase has been the subject of many previous discussions in a variety of jurisdictions, including the tribunal’s own appeal jurisdiction. An exceptional case is a question of fact and degree to be decided in each individual case and is a matter of discretion.

In exercising that discretion and deciding whether an exceptional case exists, the tribunal is required to bear in mind the gravity of the consequences involved if a positive notice and blue card were to be issued. Guidance has previously been provided to the tribunal that it would be most unwise to lay down any general rule about what an exceptional case is because all of these matters are matters of discretion11 and each case should be considered on its own facts.

Having regard to the relevant discussions on the term exceptional case, if the respondent decides that a case is exceptional because of the applicant’s criminal history, or because of an event that occurred involving that person, then justification may exist if the decision and refusal to issue a positive notice and blue card was made in the best interests of children.

The Member’s comments demonstrate that arbitrary consideration of what may constitute ‘exceptional’ is unhelpful. What is most important is that that the exceptional nature of the case be inextricably linked to the best interests of children. It is this issue which is being unreasonably expanded leaving many applicant’s stranded.

This is perhaps aptly demonstrated by two cases I have been involved with in the past few years. Other practitioners and Applicants have shared with me their frustration about many other such examples.

In one instance my client was found guilty of assault occasioning bodily harm assault in the Magistrates Court. He had been charged with choking and, when the evidence did not support that charge, it was downgraded. The defendant was placed on probation for 9 months and no conviction was recorded. There was never any suggestion that children were placed at harm during the offending. The defendant had no previous criminal history.

Blue Card Services obtained their information relating to an Applicant’s criminal history from Police. In this case they would have seen that he was charged with the offence of choking and accessed the summary of allegations drafted by Police (which ultimately formed no part of the sentencing basis). Acting on that misleading, preliminary and untested information, they deemed my client to be an exceptional case. They did not seek out the sentencing remarks, which would have shown the proper sentencing basis. They did not seek out the exhibits to the proceedings, which included a psychological report which spoke of a low risk of re-offending. Instead, he was issued a negative notice and forced to apply to QCAT to appeal this decision. He is currently mired in that process.

In another case[9] my client unlawfully disclosed information she obtained in a coercive hearing. She pleaded guilty and was fined, no conviction was recorded. That coercive hearing related to the investigation of the death of a child. There was no suggestion that she was personally involved in harming the child. The offence was not a disqualifying or serious under the legislation. She had no criminal history and was issued a negative notice.

In that case the Applicant had worked in allied care for many years. More than 2 years had passed since she had been found guilty of the offence and more than 4 years since the offence took place. Throughout that period she had received ongoing counselling from both a psychologist and a psychiatrist. She had gone to the trouble of unsuccessfully applying for the removal of the negative notice already and spent a small fortune on reports, treatment and legal fees.

Despite all of this, Blue Card Services still wanted to torture the definition of ‘exceptional’. This was concerning in two aspects. Firstly, it suggested that even the most abstract involvement of a child engaged the ‘exceptional’ clause and secondly, it suggested that someone who had been truly committed to addressing underlying issues which contributed to their offending was given no discernable credit for those efforts.

Fortunately in that case QCAT overturned Blue Card’s decision paving the way for the issuing of a positive notice. While this provides some cold comfort, there are questions which still need to be asked: How many are in the position to pay a lawyer and a psychologist to appear and increase their chances of success? How many will be disadvantaged by being opposed to a trained lawyer who specializes in appearing in the QCAT jurisdiction? How many job opportunities have been missed by those without the ability to challenge a negative notice?  How many will have career paths closed to them on the basis that their non-disqualifying or serious offending is deemed ‘exceptional’?

Blue Card Services are reacting to the increased scrutiny on their system in the wake of some well documented tragedies. That, in itself, is understandable. However, if it were truly the legislature’s intention to make it this difficult to obtain a Blue Card the presumption in favour of a Blue Card would have been dispensed with. As it has not been we are seeing an increased reliance on a case being deemed ‘exceptional’ which, in of itself, devalues that very standard. Reform may be needed to re-balance the playing field in line with the legislature’s intention.

[1] Including where the charges have been discontinued, or sentencing facts have been significantly altered;

[2] Henceforth ‘the Act’

[3] See schedule 4 & 5 of the Act

[4] See section 167 and schedules 2 & 3 of the Act

[5] Section 225 of the Act

[6] My emphasis

[7] [2019] QCAT 5

[8] At [7] – [10]

[9] See published decision: