The recent jailing for consorting of Charlie Foster, a young intellectually disabled man, highlights the rank injustice of the O’Farrell government’s new consorting laws. A NSW District Court Judge yesterday set aside Foster’s conviction after finding the elements of the offence not proved, but the matter is not over — the police are still to pursue the matter.
These new laws (sections 93X and 93Y of the State’s Crimes Act) reinstate notoriously bad laws which applied from the late 1920s until 1979 when they were deliberately watered down by the Wran Labor government. They have rarely been used since.
According to Greg Smith, Barry O’Farrell’s Attorney General, the new laws are aimed at bikies. However, the legislation is not so restricted and will inevitably catch many entirely innocent people.
So what precisely is wrong with these laws? They penalise people just for associating with people previously convicted of "indictable offences" — a category not restricted to serious offences.
The legislation says that if you communicate, say by sending a text message, to two convicted offenders on two occasions, you may receive an oral warning from a police officer. If after the warning, you send a further text message to one of the two offenders, you may be charged with "habitual consorting", punishable by up to 3 years imprisonment!
This offence involves at least three clear breaches of Australia’s human rights obligations under the main international human rights treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ("ICCPR"). Australia ratified this treaty in 1980 (under a Liberal National government) with the result that all Australian parliaments have since had an obligation to adhere to its terms, including Article 22 which requires the principle of freedom of association to be respected.
The new offence is amazingly wide. "Indictable offences" are those serious enough to go before a judge and jury. However, most indictable offences are dealt with in the Magistrates Courts and many such offences are quite minor. For example, Common Assault, Shoplifting and Obstructing a Police Officer are indictable offences in NSW (and elsewhere).
A further problem is that there is no automatic defence to the new charge. Even a spouse, parent or a child of a previous offender can be charged. There is (in section 93X) a qualified defence for family members, doctors, teachers, employers and lawyers but significantly, any person in those categories can still be arrested, charged and brought before a Court and then has the onus of proving that their association with the person concerned was "reasonable in the circumstances". This ridiculous provision reverses the onus of proof — even entirely innocent spouses, parents or children are caught. A lawyer could be charged and have to go to Court to prove the reasonableness of acting for the person concerned.
Lawyers who regularly act for convicted persons, may be warned to cease acting for a client, if, for example 40 years ago that client was convicted of shoplifting. If the lawyer ignores the warning, a charge may follow. This amounts to an unjustified interference with the workings of independent courts and, for that reason, the offence is arguably unconstitutional. It also breaches Article 14(3) of the ICCPR by limiting defendants’ rights to communicate with, and to be assisted by, lawyers of their own choosing.
The reversal of the onus of proof imposed on families, doctors and lawyers involves a third breach of international law, namely the abrogation of the presumption of innocence in Article 14(2) of the ICCPR, also a fundamental principle of Australian criminal law. Under this principle, the prosecution is required to prove all elements of a criminal offence beyond a reasonable doubt. It is not the accused’s role to have to prove their innocence, yet that is precisely what a spouse, teacher or doctor (or mother!) may have to do, to avoid conviction. The right to silence also goes out the window.
A bizarre consequence of section 93X is that priests, ministers of religion and other clergy are completely unprotected. They have no defence at all, not even the right to come to Court to prove their association reasonable. Many others such as social workers, trade union members and officials and even fellow members of sporting or social clubs, fall into the same category.
A further important objection is the arbitrary power these laws deliver into the hands of police officers. Bikies have already been charged under these new provisions and say they will appeal any convictions to the High Court. They may end up being seen as heroes as a result. However, it may be the people of Moree, Walgett and other NSW regions where Indigenous Australians live and work, who may be the most vulnerable. Some of these regions have higher crime rates and Aboriginal people are therefore much more susceptible to arbitrary police action than elsewhere.
There is a wider problem with this sort of law making. Unfortunately, because of the mainstream media’s obsession with federal politics, a lot of legislation is quickly waved through state parliaments without sufficient scrutiny. The Bill introducing these changes went through with only minor media comment and little public debate.
In NSW, with no Charter of Rights, many politicians neither know nor understand what rights they should be protecting. The NSW Parliament should replicate the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities which is based on the ICCPR. That treaty contains the universal, minimalist position of the world democratic community on civil rights and has been ratified by 167 countries. The Victorian Charter is now supported by the Baillieu Coalition government and there is little logic in Barry O’Farrell’s continued opposition to such a reform.
One thing is certain — until this dopey, repressive, unjust, outrageous piece of legislation is repealed, more Charlie Fosters will be lined up for punishment.
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