Barnett risks revolt with jail terms for police assault

Debbie Guest | The Australian | August 21, 2009

Lawyers have warned the West Australian government it will breach international law, increase rates of Aboriginal imprisonment and create unprecedented injustice by forcing judges to sentence people to jail for assaults against police.

The Barnett government boasts its mandatory sentencing laws, expected to be passed by parliament in the next few weeks, will be the toughest in Australia and send a strong message to teenagers and adults that bodily harm against a police officer will result in a term behind bars.

The laws mean a judge will have to sentence adults to a minimum six months' jail if they cause bodily harm to a police officer or a range of other public officers. These include ambulance officers, transit guards and court security officers.

The government originally wanted the laws to apply to children, but the legislation is now expected to apply only to young people aged between 16 and 18, after amendments from the Labor and the Greens.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has argued the laws will only apply to "serious" assaults but lawyers say that under the criminal code, bodily harm can mean a minor injury such as a scratch.

Three of West Australia's peak law bodies joined forces this week to launch a scathing attack on the government and to urge MPs to vote against the laws.

Australian Lawyers Alliance president Tom Percy QC said the laws were contrary to every established principle of justice.

"This is probably the biggest single injustice ever foisted upon the community in the state's history," he said.

Mr Percy said the lawyers opposing the legislation were not a "left-wing junta" and he, as a 30-year member of the Liberal Party, was "profoundly ashamed" of the party's position.

Law Society of Western Australia president Dudley Stow said mandatory sentencing laws did not in the past act as a deterrent and the number of assaults against police would not fall.

He said under the new laws, cricketer Luke Pomersbach -- who received a fine after pleading guilty to assaulting a police officer last week -- would be sentenced to a minimum six months' jail.

"While he clearly made a serious error of judgment and committed a number of offences, he did not deserve to be imprisoned," Mr Stow said.

"Even the police prosecutor at his sentencing told the court that Pomersbach did not need to be imprisoned."

WA Criminal Lawyers Association vice-president Jon Davies said if applied to children, the laws would breach the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Australia is a signatory.

"This is parliament passing sentence on people in total ignorance of the facts and circumstances of the individual case. How can that be fair?" Mr Davies said.

The Aboriginal Legal Service WA said the laws would significantly increase the rate of Aboriginal imprisonment, in a state that already locked up more indigenous people than any other Australian jurisdiction. ALSWA chief executive Dennis Eggington wrote earlier this year to state MPs, asking them to vote against the laws and arguing they were discriminatory.

Opposition legal affairs spokesman and former lawyer John Quigley said the legislation was "terrible".

Mr Quigley said Labor would try to amend the bill to allow judges discretion in cases where a jail term would result in a manifest injustice. But he said if the amendment did not pass, his party would "not oppose" the laws. The Barnett government has the numbers to ensure the bill is passed without support from Labor.