Steepe v The Commonwealth of Australia [2021] NSWSC 368

Sheep farmer bills RAAF $15m for trespass

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A sheep farmer has failed to convince a court the RAAF owes her $15.3 million for flying fighter jets over her property. NSW woman Julie Steepe issued a series of invoices in 2020 after the air force didn’t comply with her notices for them to “cease and desist”. The final notice, issued on July 30, stated the air force had seven days to show what lawful authority it had to “trespass” on her farm at Bulahdelah, 50 kilometres northeast of the RAAF’s Williamtown base.

“A breach of the border… will incur a fee of $AUD167,000 plus a further $AUD167,000 for each subsequent breach,” the notice said. “This being compensation for breaching my lawful right to quiet enjoyment of my property, as well as my lawful right to the alienation of my property from the Crown.”

“The border of my property extends to the centre of the earth and to the expanse of the universe.”

Unsatisfied with a squadron leader’s explanation of the legality of the flights, Ms Steepe took the air force to the NSW Supreme Court, (Steepe v The Commonwealth of Australia [2021] NSWSC 368) seeking orders that the invoices totalling $15.3 million be paid. She also sought orders preventing further aircraft incursions and claimed damages due to her privacy was being breached. Ms Steepe, who says online that she farms ethically, regeneratively and chemical-free, also claimed the aircraft may be carrying pest and disease and therefore be in breach of the NSW Biosecurity Act.

Justice David Davies on Thursday dismissed the case. Ms Steepe had placed considerable emphasis on one judge’s reasons in a 1923 High Court decision (The Commonwealth of Australia v The State of New South Wales (1923) 33 CLR 1) concerning mineral rights and a comment about land extending “notionally upward indefinitely”. But Justice Davies said the position at common law was that a landowner didn’t have any right to prevent aircraft flying over their property, “provided that it is at a height above that which is necessary for the ordinary use and enjoyment of the land and the structures upon it”. Further, the flights over the property were duly authorised under the Airspace Act and the Airspace Regulations. “The plaintiff does not demonstrate any right to prevent the flight of the RAAF aircraft over her land,” the judge said. Ms Steepe was ordered to pay costs.”

My farm is my Castle: I’ll keep fighting the RAAF

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Click to access steepe-v-the-commonwealth-of-australia-2021-nswsc-368.pdf

Read more cases on the “The Fee Simple Alienation Argument“.

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