Why are new laws in Australia sparking heated debate?

We all remember the events leading up to the one punch attack law when a fatal blow led to heated debate. Now, 3 years after the incident, the convicted 25 year old man was sentenced to 10 years in jail. A lot has happened since the alcohol related death in 2014. People are critically analysing both the effectiveness of the new laws in Australia and the changes to Sydney nightlife.

Many questions have been raised like the following:

  • Is it reasonable and warranted to have such strict laws relating to alcohol fuelled crimes?
  • Has the amount of alcohol related crimes decreased since the new law was passed?
  • Are business being negatively impacted?
  • Are the new laws being fairly applied?

Before considering these questions, it’s important to better understand how the laws came into being and the result of the new legislation.

One-punch law and drinking laws in Australia

In 2014, Premier Barry O’Farrell told Parliament, “action is needed because the courts have not been prepared to hand out the sentences that people expect”. In an effort to tackle alcohol-fuelled violence, the one-punch law was passed in New South Wales. Many news outlets were quick to comment and the BBC reported with the headline “Australia ‘one-punch’ laws announced in New South Wales”.

Stricter new laws in Australia include:

    • mandatory 8 year sentences for any person who fatally punched someone while under the influence of alcohol or drugs
    • Maximum penalties for serious assaults increased by 2 years, including mandatory minimum sentences
    • An increase for on the spot fines from $200 to $1,100, for disorderly behaviour
    • Greater power given to police, allowing police to immediately ban ‘troublemakers’ from the CBD and Kings Cross areas
    • Increased penalties from 2 to 25 years for those in possession of steroids
    • 1:30am lockouts for both CBD and Kings Cross venues
    • The sale of drinks being prohibited after 3:00am
    • All Liquor stores to close at 10:00pm

After many alcohol related assaults and even deaths, (including the deaths of two 18 year olds in 2012 and 2014) NSW officials decided it was enough and implemented many changes. The first of these was the highly controversial lock-out laws in much of Sydney’s CBD and eastern suburbs. The consequences were many, including:

  • Liquor stores forced to close early
  • Patrons refused re-entry in popular bars and clubs
  • Restaurants had to comply with the new rule, preventing alcohol from being served after midnight
  • Devastating effects on businesses
  • Many Sydney residents agitated by the tough new laws
  • Protesters seen outside Sydney parliament voicing their disdain of the new law

large group protesting about new laws in Australia

Are people in support of the new lockout law?

The debate surrounding the new Australian laws

The Greens MP, John Kaye was very vocal in his opposition to the new laws in Australia remarking that this was a “knee-jerk” reaction and one that was unjustified. He maintained that the underlying issues, such as discounted drinks and failure to implement responsible service of alcohol are being ignored.

The president of the bar association in agreement with the Greens MP said, “There’s no evidence at all that mandatory sentencing ever decreases the amount of crime that’s committed”. He emphatically stated that the law “isn’t effective, it’s not a deterrent.” It merely “leads to more people being locked up for no good purpose.”

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell said “manslaughter in this state is simply getting penalties of about four years”. While many highlighted far too lenient manslaughter laws as a reason for the new laws, many commented about the devastating injustice that could ensue.

It was argued that the lock-out laws will in fact exacerbate the behaviour they’re trying to curtail. By enforcing such a law, many will simply consume far more alcohol in a shorter period of time, which defeats the purpose of the new law.

Application of the laws

There’s a grave danger implementing such a law that can be interpreted by judges and applied to other cases. Legal experts warned about the widening of the new law’s application. Such a situation occurred in which a 15 year old boy pushed his 10 year old brother leading him to fall, hit his head and his accidental death. To the shock of many, the 15 year old is being charged under the one-punch legislation.

Member of the NSW Sentencing Council, Nicholas Cowdery commented about the new laws in Australia describing them as “ill-considered legislation”. He remarked that it’s “hastily enacted to address a particular situation and someone later discovers another way it can be applied”. In fact, the new law was used in offences completely unrelated to the reasons for the creation of the legislation. There is an obvious danger implementing such laws and yet failing to make provisions that protect the laws being abused.

Restaurateurs being targeted by police

In addition, restaurateurs are being targeted by police for promoting anti social behaviour. A Paddington restaurant owner was accused of “promoting unsavoury antisocial behaviour”. The citation occurred because the blackboard displaying the available list of wines was apparently located too close to the front of the restaurant.

These types of actions caused many on social media to express their outrage. Australian entrepreneur Matt Barrie, called out politicians as being on a “moralistic crusade”, turning Sydney into an “international joke”. The application of the new laws in Australia are clearly having dire effects on businesses and those simply trying to make a living.

However, many cite the decrease in the number of assaults, as the greatest testament to the new law. In an interview with ABC radio, director of the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Don Weatherburn, stated that “lockout laws had reduced assaults in Kings Cross by 40 per cent and in the central CBD entertainment district by 20 per cent”.

Many refuted these positive results saying that alcohol related crimes have fallen of their own accord, since 2008. The lockout laws simply accelerated the already diminishing statistics.

Regardless of whether or not you’re an advocate of the new Australian laws, one thing is for certain, better monitoring of their application is required. Like with all new laws, a precedent is established and currently this provides far too much leeway for a judge’s interpretation of the law.

It is also important to note that heinous crimes such as human trafficking reflect a minimum 5 year sentence in Australia, which is appalling. It appears that the Migration Act hasn’t been reviewed or updated since 1958. Isn’t it time for legislators to review some other Australian maximum sentences, before focusing solely on alcohol related crimes?

Do you require advice or representation for a criminal law matter? Contact SCB Legal today

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