ACT News

Canberra man unlawfully locked up for 82 days sues ACT government

A man who was wrongly imprisoned for 82 days has sued the ACT government, despite conceding that he knew his failure to show up for weekend detention would put him 'in the shit'.

Steven James Lewis, of Oxley, was sentenced to 12 months weekend detention in 2008 for smashing a glass into another man's face outside Fyshwick Tavern, causing significant injuries.

But Lewis, who was at the time struggling with alcoholism and his father's deteriorating health, missed a number of his required weekend detention visits. Lewis turned up to another with alcohol still in his system.

He moved to Griffith, NSW to be with his father before completing his weekend detention, but failed to notify ACT Corrective Services.

Lewis then came back, returned to work and started sleeping at his work site, but did not go back to weekend detention.

He said he saw letters at his mother's house from ACT Corrective Services, but threw them in the bin, knowing they were likely related to his non-attendance.


An inquiry was held by the Sentence Administration Board, which then cancelled his periodic detention and issued a warrant for his arrest. Lewis was not present at the board's hearing and said he did not know it was happening.

The board had repeatedly tried to contact him via mail, but Lewis was interstate and then chose not to open the letters when he returned. He said the board had his phone number but did not call him.

Eventually, he was arrested by police at his work in front of his colleagues, and taken to serve full-time custody in the old Belconnen Remand Centre. He served 82 days before being released on bail.

In March 2009, Lewis began proceedings in the ACT Supreme Court to have the Sentence Administration Board's decision ruled invalid and to test whether his detention was lawful.

His case relied on a large range of grounds, attacking the administrative process the board followed in cancelling his weekend detention, and also arguing that, as an administrative body, the board had no power to exercise a judicial function.

Lewis was successful on only one administrative point. The court found the board did not afford him the proper opportunity to be present at the hearing at which his weekend detention was cancelled, despite it being a serious decision that would have major ramifications.

Justice Richard Refshauge​ ruled that there was no evidence to prove the board had told Lewis of the hearing date, and said the man was denied natural justice as a result.

That caused the judge to set aside the decision of the board in 2013, rendering Lewis' detention unlawful.

Now, Lewis, represented by Ken Cush and Associates, is suing the ACT Government for unlawful imprisonment and false arrest.

They are arguing that Lewis' responsibility for his own imprisonment is irrelevant, because the government is subject to strict liability for unlawfully locking up a citizen.

The hearing of the case began in the ACT Supreme Court on Monday, again before Justice Refshauge​.

Lewis himself gave evidence, saying no one had ever said anything to him when he first began missing weekend detentions about the possible consequences.

He said he never thought his weekend detention could be cancelled, but instead imagined authorities would simply add his missed weekends to the back of his sentence.

Lewis said he never read the paperwork relating to his weekend detention.

"My life was in a bit of a bad way, your honour," he said.

"I was drinking way too much, hanging around with a bad crowd."

He described being terrified the first time he walked through the prison gates, which was his first time in full-time custody.

"I was scared, so scared your honour, not knowing what was going to happen," he said.

In cross-examination by Patrick Saidi, for the ACT, Lewis conceded that he had known he was "in the s---" and was possibly facing full-time custody for missing his weekend detention.

Lewis also agreed that he knew he was supposed to notify the government of a change of work or residential details.

He said he hadn't wanted to open the letters when he got back from interstate, because he knew they "would all be bad news".

"You didn't want to face up to what was in the letters?" Mr Saidi said.

Lewis replied:

"Yep that's right, I thought I could drink the problems away."

The proceedings continue before Justice Refshauge.