New ‘assault and intoxication’ legislation

The New South Wales Government has passed further law and order legislation, with highly publicised mandatory sentencing legislation expected to follow now that parliament has resumed.

The Crimes and Other Legislation (Assault and Intoxication) Amendment Act 2014 creates the offence of ‘assault causing death’, grants police the power to breath test people they have arrested within two hours of an assault and increases the maximum penalties for unlawful possession of steroids.

Importantly, the Act sets a mandatory minimum sentence for the offence of assault causing death. Sections of the legal profession have questioned whether there is sufficient difference between the new offence and the existing crimes of manslaughter and murder.

Further legislation is expected to impose mandatory minimum sentences of two years for alcohol-related assaults causing bodily harm. A cut or a bruise can qualify as harm.

Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research figures indicate that if drunken fights remain at current levels, NSW can expect at least an additional 2,000 prisoners in the first year of the new laws. That is approximately 20% of the prison population. Depending on the specific charges and the rate of successful defences, this figure may rise as high as 50% in the first year.

Mandatory sentences are recognised as reducing the incentive for pleading guilty, because the incentive does not balance against the benefit of successfully defending a charge. The anticipated consequence is that more prosecutions will go to trial. This will increase the time it takes a court to deal with each matter. An increase in contested hearings in the Local Court is likely to increase delays in dealing with civil claims such as contract disputes and motor accidents.

The legislation, when passed, has the potential to impact upon all of Redfern Legal Centre’s clients, by placing increased burden upon the court system in all areas. The resulting consequences will change expectations about access to justice for many legal issues across NSW.