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Friday, August 24, 2012

AUSTRAILIA - Consort law sends the wrong message

WHAT sort of a legal system do we have when a person can be sent to jail for going shopping with his mates? What sort of a legal system do we have when it need not be suggested (let alone proven) that the person was planning some criminal activity?
What sort of a legal system do we have when the person need not be a bikie, need not own a bike and the persons he associated with need not be bikies?
The answer is the legal system of NSW.
The full horror of the new consorting laws was played out at Inverell in the north of the state, far from the bikie gxxgs and shootings of the cities, when Charles Foster was the first person found guilty under the new consorting laws and sent to jail for 12 months, with a non-parole period of nine months.
These laws, contained in the Crimes Amendment (Consorting and Organised Crime) Act 2012, came into force on April 9.
They apply where a person habitually consorts with convicted offenders on at least two occasions. Consorting means no more than associating or keeping company.
Attending legitimate gatherings, such as business or social activities, is consorting. There is also no implication in the term that the association be of any particular length.
It is not necessary that the consorting take place jointly. You do not have to physically meet. You can consort over the telephone or by email.
The convicted person may have only one conviction and that may be 25 years ago for shoplifting or some corporate or tax offence. Since then he or she may have become a respected and law-abiding citizen.
There are certain limited exemptions but then they are only exempted if the magistrate considers that the consorting was reasonable in the circumstances.
A person found guilty of consorting may be sent to jail for up to three years.
We do not know here whether there was some underlying reasonable concern of the police. But that needs to be proved in the normal way, not relying on their suspicion of an unstated concern.
The magistrate who convicted Foster is reported as saying the consorting law highlights the concern of the community in relation to individuals who have a criminal propensity of associating with people who have been convicted of an indictable offence. But how do you determine who has such propensity?
If you are truly interested in keeping the person away from criminals, why not make appropriate orders that he keep a certain distance from them? Why send him to jail?
By sending the person consorting to jail, what is achieved? It is said that you keep him away from associating with some criminals - but he is sent to jail where there are only criminals.
It is said that you break up gangs, but what evidence was there that Foster was part of a criminal gang or even wanted to join one?
And what effect is all of this on the persons with whom he has consorted? It makes a pariah of them, isolating them in their community and thereby presenting a greater threat.
The sentencing of Foster to 12 months in jail certainly sends a clear message to the community. That is the consorting law is bad and the sentence harsh and oppressive.