PERTH (miningweekly.com) – Global law firm Ashurst said a recent High Court ruling, which rejected a special leave application by the Ngadju People, meant that strategically important areas in Western Australia had been left undisturbed.
The Full Court of Australia in March this year overturned a Federal Court decision at first instance in November 2014, that incorrectly held that almost 300 mining leases had been renewed by Gold Fields' St Ives, BHP Billiton's Nickel West and other mining companies in a manner which was inconsistent with the provisions of the Native Title Act, and therefore potentially invalid.
The November decision in favour of the Ngadju People meant several hundred mining leases stretching throughout the Goldfields were found to be invalid, creating much uncertainty for the tenure of most of the state’s nickel industry and a number of the biggest gold mines in the region, said Ashurst global co-lead of corporate and native title specialist Geoff Gishubl.
Had that initial decision been left undisturbed by the Full Court of the Federal Court in March this year, and by the High Court in October, the ruling may have resulted in a situation where in the absence of reaching a native title agreement, the Ngadju People would have had the right to force the mining companies to cease operations.
Gishubl pointed out that with the High Court now rejecting the Ngadju People’s special leave application, the Traditional Owner group had exhausted all avenues of appeal from the Full Court decision.
“The situation serves as a timely reminder for companies that currently operate under state agreements to be mindful of the way they deal with interests held under those agreements; if a wrong step is taken in the process the native title consequences may be significant,” said Gishubl.
There are currently approximately 60 state agreements applying to resources assets in Western Australia and had this decision not been confirmed by the court, there would have been major implications for how these assets, and mining leases granted prior to 1993, are treated when they expire or are due for renewal, he said.
“Companies need to be well aware of the tenure or rights underpinning state agreements and carefully consider how any changes will impact native title rights.
“Native title is a key legal risk that when not appropriately managed, can bring an operation to a halt. As such, it is essential to ensure strong relationships and a clear understanding of the legal framework underpinning such agreements.”