“No camping” – but what’s camping?
We’ve all seen signs that say ‘no camping’ but what does ‘camping’ mean? Humpty Dumpty is reported to have said "When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less" (Alice Through the Looking Glass) and that is about the best explanation of the term ‘camping’.
There is no national or even state-based definition. Taking New South Wales alone, legislation allows not less than 11 government authorities to regulate camping on their land, but the definition of camping is not consistent across those Acts. Apart from state government, local governments can establish rules or bylaws to regulate activity which could include camping. There are in excess of 500 local governments across Australia. Where they seek to regulate camping they can each have their own definition. Private land owners can also define what they mean by ‘camping’ where they want to allow or prohibit camping.
A notice, regulation or sign can be challenged on the grounds of uncertainty. In Director of Public Prosecutions v Priestley  NSWSC 407 the defendant was acquitted of the offence of sleeping in Martin Place contrary to a sign that prohibited ‘Staying Overnight’ on the basis that there was no sensible way to understand what ‘overnight’ meant. Justice Adams said ‘Notices or rules which impose “criminal consequences for breach must be… sufficiently certain to enable the relevant tribunal as well as those brought before it to determine whether the impugned conduct is prohibited”.
So, the answer to the question of ‘what does ‘No Camping’ mean?’ depends on who put up the sign or notice. A sign or notice from a government authority should, ideally, refer you to the Act, regulation or by-law that they rely on to regulate camping. You need to go to that legislation, regulation or by-law to see what definition applies. Where there is no definition, and where an inspector attempts to impose a penalty, you would have the option to ask a court to determine what ‘camping’ means in the particular circumstances. That is unhelpful as it is both expensive and it means you cannot know, in advance, what is or is not permitted but it does mean that allegations of ‘prohibited camping’ can be challenged. And if the alleged prohibition is too uncertain it may be void.
The above is the first contribution by Michael Eburn. Michael is a barrister and Associate Professor at the Australian National University’s College of Law. His principal area of research is the law and its impact on emergency services. His move into caravan and camping law was inspired by his interest in camping and travelling in his Toyota Hi-Ace campervan.