Final Report into penalties for assaults on public officers released

Media release

Thursday, 1 October 2020

The Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council says reform is recommended to simplify and focus the offence of serious assault under section 340 of the Criminal Code Act 1899.

The Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council is recommending important changes to the structure of offences and penalties for assaults in the workplace, making 13 recommendations to the Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, the Honourable Yvette D’Ath MP.

The recommendations follow a 9-month inquiry into penalties for assaults on police and other frontline emergency service workers, corrective services officers and other public officers.

The proposed changes acknowledge the unique occupational vulnerability of frontline and emergency workers through a stand-alone Criminal Code offence while giving express legislative recognition to the increased seriousness of assaults and other forms of violence on any person who is vulnerable because of their job, no matter what their job is, through the introduction of a new aggravating factor.

Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council Chair, John Robertson, said, “We found in speaking to stakeholders who represented everyone from medical professionals and corrective services officers, first responders such as fire fighters, police and paramedics, to transport workers and teachers, that there is confusion about what workers are protected under section 340, and how offences under this section should be charged.”

“This section, which formed part of the original Criminal Code, remained relatively untouched from its commencement in 1901 until 1988, after which time it increasingly became the focus of legislative attention and was amended 16 times.

“Our recommendations look to provide clarity, overhauling section 340 with a focus on assaults on frontline and emergency workers.”

The Council has also advised retitling the offence to reflect the changes and to promote understanding of the type of conduct it is intended to capture.

“The new section 340 would be targeted at assaults on those officers whose primary role is to keep the community safe, who perform critical response duties on behalf of the community, and who perform a unique role in the supervision and management of offenders,” Mr Robertson said.

The Council is recommending those to be included in the recast section 340 be:

  • police officers, watch-house officers and protective security staff employed by the Queensland government;
  • ambulance officers;
  • health-service providers employed under the Hospital and Health Boards Act 2011 (Qld) or delivering services in a private hospital, prison or detention centre environment, as well as people acting in aid of those health-service providers (for example, privately contracted security staff);
  • fire and emergency services employees under the Fire and Emergency Services Act 1990 (Qld), rural fire brigade and State Emergency Service members and other volunteers engaged in an activity to support functions under that Act;
  • corrective services officers;
  • youth justice staff members;
  • authorised officers under the Child Protection Act 1999 (Qld); and
  • a person employed or engaged by the Commonwealth or in another state or territory to perform functions of a similar kind to those listed above who are on duty in Queensland.

“The inclusion of these occupations not only reflects the essential and critical role of these officers but will also result in greater clarity about who the section applies to,” Mr Robertson said.

The Council’s proposals mean that some public officers would no longer be captured within section 340, including transit officers, fisheries inspectors, local government employees and public-school employees. However, a specific aggravating sentencing factor for such assaults has been recommended, that also would apply to other people who are in positions of vulnerability due to their occupation, such as public transport drivers.

“That aggravating factor would apply to any other Queensland offence that involves violence or physical harm — charges it could apply to include common assault, assault occasioning bodily harm, wounding, grievous bodily harm and acts intended to cause grievous bodily harm and other malicious acts,” Mr Robertson said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic in recent months has heightened our awareness of the risks of assault posed to retail workers and we found a belief among some industries that, because section 340 does not expressly capture their workers, when an assault has occurred at work it will not be treated as more serious unless that particular job or industry is expressly listed in legislation.

More broadly, the Council believes there is substantial work to be done in improving justice system responses, support for victims and in increasing community understanding.

“There is merit in investigating the expanded use and availability of adult restorative justice conferencing as part of a broader criminal justice response to assaults on public officers and others who are assaulted at work,” Mr Robertson said.

“We found that this program, which gives victims the ability to meet face-to-face with the offender in a supportive environment, was viewed very positively by a wide range of stakeholders during consultations and in submissions.

While restorative justice conferencing may not be an option all victims wish to pursue, many stakeholders commented on its potential to improve victim satisfaction by giving them a role as active participants in the process and allowing them to communicate the harm that has been caused by the offender’s actions, other than through the making of a victim impact statement.

“It is a historical fact that, as part of the original Criminal Code, assaulting a police officer has always been an offence that attracts a higher penalty in Queensland than assaults of others in the community,” Mr Robertson said.

“What the Council has done through its 13 recommendations is distinguish the increased seriousness of an assault on those whose jobs are designed to protect the community and respond to emergencies, and acknowledge for all other workers the right to be able to do their job safely knowing they too are recognised under the law.”

Media inquiries

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Laura Mac Kenzie
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