The sex offenders’ challenge

My guess last post was right. (Of course, presumably the whole legal community knew this, but not me.) It’s on!:

Two convicted sex offenders are invoking Victoria’s human rights charter to appeal against being given an extended supervision order in what is a legal first.

One of the applicants is a child sex offender jailed for more than 10 years for his crimes. The man, whose name is suppressed, was convicted for sex crimes against his teenage daughter, another teenage girl and his adult partner. He was given a 10-year extended supervision order when he finished his jail term after a County Court judge found a “high degree of probability” he was likely to further offend. However, his lawyer Graham Thomas SC told a Court of Appeal hearing today his client was not a high-risk child sex offender and therefore not eligible to to be subject to the order.

Mr Thomas also said the sentencing judge had indicated she did not believe the man was suitable for an order but later changed her position. But counsel representing the secretary to the Department of Justice, David Grace QC, said the man’s crimes were premeditated and opportunistic. Mr Grace said the sentencing judge included in her reasons the fact the man had shown a lack of insight into his behaviour by denying his wrongdoing. He said the man jumped bail on the day he was due to attend his court hearing on his application for an extended supervision order and had refused to take part in a sex offenders program, despite being offered many times. Mr Grace said the man continued to “thumb his nose up at authority” and suggested he tried to create relationships with females with children while he was in jail so he could groom them for sexual offending.

The second sex offender is appealing an eight-year extended supervision order imposed on him by the County Court on the basis it is too long. The man, whose name is also suppressed, was jailed for more than a year for indecent assault and will also use the charter to argue his case.

Victoria became the first Australian state to implement a Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities on January 1 and it is the first time it will be considered by Victoria’s appeal court. The hearing before Justices Geoffrey Nettle, President Chris Maxwell and Mark Weinberg continues tomorrow.

Um, it’s actually the sixth time the Charter will be ‘considered’ by Victoria’s appeal court. The appeal court cited the Charter once in 2006 and four times again this year, including in its appalling Underbelly decision. Here’s hoping, though, that this will be the first time the Court actually does the Charter justice, in analysis if not in the final result. Interestingly, all three judges in this hearing are Charter virgins. The case, argued today, is listed for a second day of argument tomorrow. [EDIT: And here’s the Hun’s take. The tabloid refers to the offenders as ‘sex fiends’ (fair enough, I guess) and, as is the norm, gives more details of the legal argument than the Age.]

But what is being argued? The article is tantalisingly vague. I can see three types of rights arguments could be made about extended supervision orders (ESOs): Continue reading

The right to jury nullification

I’m absolutely thrilled at today’s verdict in the trial of Joseph ‘Jihad Jack’ Thomas. This is the second time a jury has examined the case against Thomas and issued a split verdict, clearing him of major terrorism charges and convicting him of trivia. In both trials, the verdict was surprising in light of the evidence, where Thomas confessed to the appearance of being a terrorist, but claimed that it was all a ruse.

While it may be that both juries diligently applied the requirement of proof beyond reasonable doubt, I suspect – and indeed hope – that the split verdicts were deliberate messages aimed at the Australian authorities, expressing outrage at their connivance in conduct that is much worse than anything Thomas is accused of.

There’s been some talk lately of abolishing juries. I’m torn by such calls. The complex task of fact-finding strikes me as ideally suited to professionals, who can be trained for their job and can be expected to provide testable reasons for their decisions. But professionals so often tend to toe official lines. These conflicting criteria for good fact-finders appear in the Charter’s fair hearing right:

24(1) A person charged with a criminal offence…  has the right to have the charge… decided by a competent, independent and impartial court or tribunal after a fair and public hearing.

Lord Devlin beautifully expressed how competence (via the long service of professional life) can be at odds with independence when it comes to the task of finding the facts that connect the law to individuals:

The power that puts the jury above the law can never be safely entrusted to a single person or to an institution, no matter how great or how good. For it is an absolute power and, given time, absolute power corrupts absolutely. But jurors are anonymous characters who meet upon a random and unexpected summons to a single task (or perhaps a few), whose accomplishment is their dissolution. Power lies beneath their feet but they tread on it so swiftly that they are not burnt.

The juries of Jihad Jack managed to accomplish a justice that completely eluded the various institutions involved: the AFP, the Cth DPP, the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the High Court.

The Charter, alas, was inapplicable in Thomas’s trials, due in part to its federal aspects (the involvement of AFP and ASIO, and the federal offences) and also (in relation to state aspects, such as court procedure) because of  the Charter’s appalling transitional provision. If the Charter had been applicable, some weighty rights indeed would have been engaged:

  • Charter s. 10 (torture): Not only was Thomas (on all accounts) tortured and degraded at the hands of Pakistani and CIA agents, but Cummins J appallingly admitted confessions he made to escape further torture.
  • Charter ss. 14, 15 & 16 (civil freedoms):The ridiculous offence of receiving money from (as opposed to funding) a terrorist organisation, without any requirement to prove an intent to further the organisation’s aims or to commit a crime, would, if it was a Victorian offence, have almost certainly engages the Charter’s rights to belief, expression and association. While these rights can be subjected to ‘lawful restrictions’, that caveat requires that the restrictions be accessible and proportionate. Charging Thomas with an offence that was recently created while he was out-of-contact overseas scarcely meets the first requirement; the 25 year maximum penalty (and the oppressive five-year sentence Cummins imposed) make a mockery out of the second.
  • Charter s. 25(2)(b) (right to a lawyer): The AFP told Thomas of his right to communicate with a lawyer, but simultaneously informed him that he couldn’t exercise it (due to Pakistani restrictions.) Their failure to stop the interview then and there is what made his first trial possible, after Cummins appallingly held that compliance with Thomas’s rights wasn’t required in the circumstance. If Thomas had access to a lawyer, he would have been made aware of the new offences (and, of course, advised to exercise his right to silence.)
  • Charter s. 26 (double jeopardy): The Court of Appeal, after correcting the erroroneous admission of THomas’s tortured and unadvised confessions, which permitted his first trial, erroneously permitted a second trial, sidestepping a clear High Court authority (not to mention a major ruling of the US Supreme Court) to allow the prosecution to have a second go based on entirely new evidence. The outgoing Chief Justice and Hayne J weren’t bothered.

The new evidence was interviews given by Thomas that were published after his first wrongful conviction. A lot of commentators have glibly observed that Thomas was ‘badly advised’ about giving that interview. But I disagree. Continue reading

Do police have rights?

Victorian police will soon be told to register any ‘inappropriate relationships’ they have with criminals, a move designed to stop them from being targeted or seduced by organised crime syndicates. Needless to say, the police’s union is unimpressed:

[T]he Police Association says it fears the register will be an intelligence-gathering tool for the Ethical Standards Department. The union has written to Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe to protest, saying that the move would probably be shunned by police. “Among the concerns was the probable lack of member acceptance on what will be a major intrusion,” the letter said. It hinted at possible legal action, saying the association believed the policy violated Victoria’s human rights laws. 

Human rights laws? Good to see that the human rights culture has taken grip where it’s most needed.

So, what human rights are at issue?  Continue reading

Muddying the waters

A flotilla of vessels is today protesting the arrival of the Queen of the Netherlands – a ship, rather than a monarch – which will soon commence the controversial dredging of Port Phillip Bay. Those vessels’ activities were hampered by a declaration by the Director of Marine Safety under s. 15 of the Marine Act 1988 that bars bathing, diving and the operation of vessels 200m from the Queen (while she’s ‘underway’) and 50m from her (while she’s ‘anchored, moored or birthed’). The Act provides for fines of four penalty points (and more for later offences), but so far the police are simply yelling at offenders to move away (and they’re listening.)

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The compatibility of this action with the Charter was addressed – indirectly – in Parliament last year Continue reading