Landmark high court ruling finds commonwealth government liable for sacred site damage: Guardian

Case centring on damage to Gunlom Falls in Kakadu National Park overturned as it breaches Sacred Sites Act

Gunlom falls, one of Kakadu’s star attractions, was damaged after a walkway was built too close to an Indigenous sacred men’s site in the Northern Territory national park in 2019. Photograph: Helen Davidson/The Guardian

The commonwealth government can be held criminally liable for damages to Indigenous sacred sites, Australia’s highest court has ruled.

The high court on Wednesday overturned a decision from the Northern Territory supreme court after Parks Australia caused damage to an Indigenous sacred site in Kakadu national park in 2019.

The case had centred on damage to Gunlom Falls within the national park, after a walkway was built too close to a sacred men’s site.

After a legal challenge by the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority against the director of National Parks, the NT supreme court found while the track works weren’t properly authorised, the commonwealth could not be held legally responsible for the damage under territory.

The director of National Parks had previously pleaded not guilty to charges due to arguing that as a government body, it held the privileges and immunities of the commonwealth.

But following an appeal to the high court, it found the director of National Parks could be held criminally liable for breaching the Sacred Sites Act.

“It is not a presumption against construing a statute to impose criminal liability on a natural person or a body corporate, such as the [director of National Parks],” the court said in its ruling.

The ruling is set to create a precedent of how Indigenous sacred sites are protected.

The cascading waterfalls at Gunlom Falls had gained prominence in the classic Australian film Crocodile Dundee.

While the location had been a population destination for visitors to Kakadu National Park, it had been closed after the damage to the sacred site.

Parks Australia, which jointly manages Kakadu National Park with traditional owners, agreed it had performed work on a sacred site without the necessary permissions and had since promised to redirect the track and consult to ensure no work was performed in culturally sensitive areas.

Parks Australia previously apologised for the damage to the site in early 2021.