New laws aimed at further crackdown on emergency worker assaults

Published by The Age on 3 March 2020

New laws will make it harder for people who assault emergency services workers to avoid jail by claiming they were impaired by drugs and alcohol at the time of the offence.

A law already applies a minimum six-month prison sentence for anyone who assaults and injures an emergency services worker.

But the changes will narrow the range of excuses offenders can use in court, such as mental impairment from self-induced drug and alcohol use, Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy says.

Cases of assaults on emergency workers will also be heard in the County Court, rather than the Magistrates Court, which deals with lower-level crimes.

The adequacy of laws on assaulting emergency services workers was questioned last year when James Haberfield, 22, avoided a six-month sentence for assaulting a paramedic after arguing he consumed a "cocktail of drugs" at a music festival.

Haberfield also had depression and autism spectrum disorder.

Afterwards, Victoria's chief magistrate at the time Peter Lauritsen said the magistrate who handed down the sentence – of treatment, monitoring and community orders – had made the appropriate decision within the constraints of the law.

Ms Hennessy said the latest changes would make sentencing for harming emergency services workers "very clear".

"We are making the test much harder for people to demonstrate that they were suffering from the impacts of a mental impairment," she said.

Ms Hennessy said the government was lifting the jurisdiction to higher courts because it wanted to demonstrate the gravity of the offences.

The Law Institute of Victoria's criminal law co-chair Melinda Walker said some people with mental illness are dealing with significant drug issues and they risk being jailed under mandatory provisions.

"We don't condone assaults upon emergency service workers who are deserving of protection," she said.

"But we have a huge cohort of homeless people with mental health and drug issues who are more likely to be in contact with emergency workers. These are the people who will be substantially affected by these laws and jail will do little to enhance rehabilitation prospects."

The County Court's chief judge Peter Kidd last month said Victorians have been "misled" into thinking the law meant mandatory jail time.

"There are a number of explicit and carefully marked out exceptions to the six-month imprisonment term," he said during a 3AW radio interview.

It's unclear how Tuesday's announcement will significantly change the existing special reasons that allow offenders to argue against a six-month jail term.

An offender can still argue they have a special reason not to be jailed, but they will need to prove drugs or alcohol was not the main cause of their mental impairment at the time of the assault.

They can also still argue their mental functioning substantially and materially reduced their culpability.

Police Association Secretary Wayne Gatt said violence towards police and emergency services workers needed to be stamped out.

"We are talking about those people who come to us with the sole intent of injuring us to get away, to escape custody," Mr Gatt said.

"It's those people that these laws were aimed at, it's those people that need to go to jail."

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