In a democratic society the legal system provides a framework inside which all sections of the community interact. It establishes the rights and privileges of the individual and makes provision for enforcement of rights and redress for wrongs suffered. All citizens should be aware of their legally defined rights and responsibilities, and should have an understanding of the laws that govern their personal and professional lives. Ignorance of a law is not accepted as an excuse for violation of that law.

Nurses have legal responsibilities common to all members of the community, and also the responsibilities imposed by the nature of their work, which may be defined as responsibilities in respect of:

The functions of the law in nursing are summarised in Clinical Interest Box 3.1.


There are, in each Australian state and territory, various Acts, which are laws created by a Parliament. Acts of Parliament are commonly referred to as legislation and are often accompanied by Regulations that give directions to be followed to comply with the intent of the Act. As the Acts vary from state to state and territory, nurses are advised to become familiar with the specific Acts relevant to their place of nursing practice. Some examples of these Acts are outlined in Clinical Interest Box 3.2.


Because the control and regulation of the nursing profession in Australia is determined on a state and territory basis, each Australian state and territory has its own Nurses Act or Health Professions Registration Act and Regulations. There is a Nurses Board or Nurses Council in each of the states and territories, composed of members empowered to both register and deregister nurses. Each state or territory Act is divided into sections, each one of which deals with a specific aspect concerning registration. As each state and territory has its own Act, it is essential that nurses read a copy of the relevant legislation so that they are aware of individual state and/or territory requirements. The Nursing Council of New Zealand is responsible for the registration of all categories of New Zealand nurses.

Some states and territories now have a separate register for midwives, as new education programs mean that in some jurisdictions it is possible to become a midwife by direct entry through an undergraduate degree in midwifery. In addition, all states and territories have now enacted legislation to enable the title ‘nurse practitioner’ to be protected (Staunton & Chiarella 2008).

By defining the terms under which a nurse may practise in each of the categories of registration, the law protects the community by deeming the nurse who has qualified to be safe and competent to practise nursing. Nurses who do not fulfil the requirements of the relevant Nurses or Health Professions Registration Act may not practise as nurses. Currently, a practising certificate or renewal of registration must be obtained from the Nurses Board in each state or territory annually by a person who is registered or enrolled and intends to practise in any branch of nursing. The responsibility for ensuring that registration or enrolment fees are paid each year rests with the individual nurse.

Each state or territory registration body and the Nursing Council of New Zealand is empowered to deregister nurses in certain circumstances; for example, a nurse’s registration or enrolment may be cancelled if they unlawfully use a registration number or if they are found guilty of misconduct or negligence in a professional respect.


The nurse has a responsibility to be aware of certain legal principles, specifically in relation to:

It is important for nurses to realise that they are legally responsible for their own actions and that, although the EN works under the supervision of a Registered Nurse (RN), this does not relieve them of personal liability. Nurses have a responsibility, to themselves and their clients, to refuse to perform an activity if:


A contract is an agreement between parties that is legally enforceable because of mutuality of agreement and obligation. A contract gives rise to rights and obligations that are protected and enforced by the law. A contract may be in writing or it may arise by implication, such as the agreement that is reached between a client and a health care agency to which they are admitted. While the client is not required to sign a document, they will have entered into a contract as to the nature and extent of their proposed treatment. Private clients enter into a contract with their medical officer.

The nurse, as an employee, enters into a contract with the employer. Arising out of this contractual relationship are certain rights and obligations relevant to both the employee and the employer, as defined in a written contract of employment. The creation of industrial awards has imposed specific provisions on employers relating to the health and safety of employees, the payment of wages and the provision of certain conditions. An industrial award is a document that sets out the wages and conditions of a particular group of employees and represents the contract of employment between the employer and the employee. A copy of each award can be obtained from the Department of Industrial Relations. Employers are required to have copies of the relevant awards available so that they are accessible to employees. Nurses have a responsibility to themselves to understand their contract of employment and their industrial award.

Nurses engaged through nursing agencies are under contract to the health agency to which they have agreed to be allocated, on starting each work shift. A nursing agency is only an employment agency even though the nurse’s pay may be processed through them.


Negligence, in a legal sense, describes conduct that falls below the standard required by law. If a nurse gives care that does not meet accepted standards, the nurse may be held liable for negligence; for example, if the nurse’s actions result in harm to a client. Like other health professionals, nurses have a duty of care to their clients and, generally, negligence means failure by a nurse to take appropriate actions to protect the safety of a client or resident. This may involve failing to do something that should have been done, or doing something that should not have been done. Examples of negligent acts that have occurred include incorrect administration of medications (e.g. the wrong medication being administered), failure to communicate important information about a client’s condition, and failing to take appropriate measures so that a client has consequently sustained an injury (e.g. by falling out of bed).

A plaintiff must prove three elements to succeed in an action for negligence:

The likelihood of injury to a client, and the risk of liability, is reduced when the nurse adheres to the principles of sound nursing practice and follows the established policies relating to standards of care. Clinical Interest Box 3.3 lists examples of nursing care errors that may result in negligence claims.

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