High Court of Australia Building

High Court rules National Parks is bound by Northern Territory law

The High Court of Australia today ruled unanimously in favour of the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) in the long-running legal battle with National Parks over the protection of sacred sites.

The High Court case considered whether crown immunity for the Commonwealth extended to the Director of National Parks (DNP), and unanimously found DNP can be prosecuted for offences under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act 1989 (Sacred Sites Act).

The matter arose when the DNP allegedly conducted works on the Gunlom Falls sacred site within the Kakadu National Park against the wishes of Aboriginal custodians and without authorisation from the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority and then claimed crown immunity from prosecution.

Dr Benedict Scambary, AAPA Chief Executive Officer said today’s win reinforces the strength of the NT Sacred Sites Act. 

“The Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority has a long history of successfully protecting sacred sites whilst supporting development.  To have National Parks ignore that process and argue they are above the Sacred Sites Act was an insult to everyone who values our national heritage and these irreplaceable sacred sites.

“The former Attorney-General of Australia should be ashamed to have directed National Parks to claim the right to freely damage Aboriginal sacred sites.

“This successful High Court appeal makes very clear that National Parks can be held to account under the NT Sacred Sites Act for damaging Aboriginal sacred sites.  Going forward, Commonwealth corporations and officers in the NT cannot assume that Territory criminal laws, including the Sacred Sites Act, do not apply to them.”

AAPA Chair Mr Bobby Nunggumajbarr said that Kakadu National Park is jointly managed by Traditional Owners and the Commonwealth Government and this dispute has caused a lot of concern among custodians.

"This decision is the right one.  Kakadu is an important place for the whole nation.  Aboriginal people want to be able to share it with everyone, but they must have confidence that its sacred places will be respected”.

“Now we can all work together to keep our sacred places safe.” 

Following today’s High Court decision, the original prosecution relating to damage at Gunlom Falls will resume in the Northern Territory Local Court.


The full High Court ruling can be found here: hca-16-2024-05-08.pdf (hcourt.gov.au)