Community outrage over soft manslaughter and dangerous driving causing death sentences have prompted the Government to today introduce legislation raising the maximum penalties available to judges.
Attorney-General Christian Porter this morning said the laws would mean manslaughter cases could only be heard in the Supreme Court and raise the maximum penalty from 20 years to life imprisonment.
Dangerous driving causing death cases could only be heard in the District Court where maximum penalties of 20 years for aggravated circumstances or 10 years for non-aggravated cases would apply.
Currently the charge can be treated as a summary offence in the Magistrates court where a much lesser penalty applies – either a fine or a maximum penalty of three years imprisonment.
Mr Porter said the Government would introduce the laws to parliament today in the belief that the current maximum penalties were “not in line with community expectation”.
Responding to the Government’s announcement this morning, shadow attorney general John Quigley said Labor would support the legislation, but he was sceptical about whether it would bring “about a huge change to the sentencing regime” for dangerous driving causing death.
“It will raise the maximum penalty but whether overall it raises the effective time that a person’s incarcerated, I’m somewhat dubious of,” he said.
“We’re not going to hold it (the legislation) up with unnecessary debate, but we will examine the clause of the Bill as an Opposition is obliged to do.”
WA Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan said welcomed the tougher penalties.
“I think there are a lot of victims out there and families who are concerned at the type of penalties that have been handed down and I think many people will welcome toughening the laws and penalties around what is a very serious offence,” Mr O’Callaghan said.
“I think we have to understand manslaughter, in regards to driving a motor vehicle, means that the driver has driven the vehicle extremely recklessly in a manner with no regard for other people and has caused death and I think the laws now reflect the seriousness of that offence.
“There’s no doubt penalties are a deterrent…they won’t stop everybody but I think there will be many people who will go out and drive cars now and think twice about the way the drive them.
“We have seen some pretty horrific crashes in the last few years where particularly young people have been killed and I don’t think the penalties have been adequate.”
Mr Porter referred specifically to the case of 19-year-old Lawrence Dix, who was shot and killed at the door of his family home in Bunbury over a $100 drug debt in 2007.
Jack Benjamin Hall, 20, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to four years and three months jail for the crime, with parole eligibility after three years and nine months.
Mr Porter also referred to the case of father of five Bill Rowe, who was struck with a cricket bat on a beach in Geraldton in 2007.
Matthew Roy McDonald, 22, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, with parole eligibility after three years and nine months.
Mr Porter said he felt for the families which the laws would come too late for.
“I’ve had a reasonably close connection with the Rowe and Dix families since the offences that destroyed the fabric of those families,” he said.
“I’ve listened very carefully to them and to the people that surround them. The view that I formed and the view that I put to my cabinet and which they and this Government shares, is that what happened as an outcome in those two cases was not in line with the expectation of those communities and the wider WA community.”
He said the changes were about both justice and deterrence, and he expected they would put “upward pressure” on sentences.“There are cases of manslaughter out there which are so grotesque and so offensive to community values that judges will use life imprisonment. It is used in other jurisdictions,” Mr Porter said.
“The expectation of the community is that where a life is lost because of the criminal conduct of a person, then you should have open to the court very high maximum penalties.”
Mr Quigley said the announcement would be welcomed by the community but he questioned its timing.
“I see this announcement coming out today largely as a distraction that the Government is creating from the serious problems they’ve got with their law and order agenda,” he said.
“With rising figures for burglary, home invasion, methamphetamine laboratories, clan labs, these are the real issues that are affecting the community today and simply raising the maximum penalty for manslaughter from 20 years to life is unlikely to do anything to any of the issues that are impacting upon the community.”
Mr Porter said the changes would bring WA into line with Queensland, South Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Britain.