Coward punch penalties: laws should change in response to evidence, not outrage

Coward punches must stop, but there is no evidence the existing penalties are insufficient.

In an opinion piece in The Canberra Times on Tuesday, Nicholas Stuart asserts that the ACT government and specifically me as Attorney-General take a relaxed attitude to coward punch incidents. To the contrary, this government takes a systematic approach to violence in the community, looking at causes, harms and prevention, and has taken steps recently to address these causes and harms.

Acts of violence are serious and should never be tolerated. The government is committed to addressing violence in the community, as well as setting appropriate penalties for these offences. A coward punch can cause lasting and devastating impacts on victims and their families.

Stuart's article implies the only available penalty for this type of offence if the victim survives the attack is a maximum of two years' imprisonment for common assault. Depending on the circumstances and injury caused, there are a range of offences available between assault (maximum of two years' imprisonment) and murder (maximum of life imprisonment). One of these offences, for example, is intentionally inflicting grievous bodily harm (maximum of 20 years' imprisonment). The offence with which a person is charged will depend on the crime's individual circumstances. It is not sensible, or in line with principles of criminal justice, to single out one example of violence that can fall within that range of offences and create a new offence with a penalty akin to that of murder.

Thankfully, the victim of a cowardly punch on January 1, 2016, did not die. If that had happened, the offender could have been charged with manslaughter or murder, for which the maximum penalty is life imprisonment, in line with Queensland's new offence of unlawful striking causing death. The alleged offender has been charged with recklessly inflicting grievous bodily harm. The maximum penalty for this in the ACT is 13 years' imprisonment. This was increased in a legislative amendment I proposed as Attorney-General in 2011 from a previous 10-year maximum. The penalty for this level of offence in NSW is 12 years, in Queensland it is 14 years and in Victoria it is 15 years.

Coward punches are often fuelled by alcohol and it is thus crucial that we manage the consumption of alcohol in our community in a way that reduces and prevents alcohol-related violence and other harm.


The ACT government has shown its commitment to this through the reforms to liquor regulation that were implemented in 2010. The Liquor Act adopted a new focus on harm minimisation and community safety and included a risk-based approach to licensing, mandatory responsible service of alcohol training, risk-assessment management plans for licensed premises and new offences dealing with the supply of liquor to intoxicated people and irresponsible promotion of liquor. These reforms were supported by a significant expansion of policing and regulatory resources to ensure compliance with the new laws. This has involved police and the liquor regulator working with industry on education and awareness, as well as taking enforcement action for breaches.

In 2015, I released two papers seeking views from key stakeholders and the broader community on a range of options to further prevent alcohol-related harms. Some of the measures that were canvassed have already been implemented in, or are being considered by other jurisdictions. More than 30 submissions were received. These, together with the research and evidence available about what works to reduce alcohol-related violence and anti-social behaviour, will inform the government's decision about further changes to strengthen the community-safety focus of our liquor laws.

Law reform should be conducted in a measured, evidence-based manner, not fuelled by public outrage. There is no denying that coward punches need to stop. But there is also no evidence suggesting that laws such as minimum mandatory penalties have any value as a deterrent.

Simon Corbell is the ACT's Attorney-General.