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COMMENT

One-punch victims deserve better from Canberra's justice system

Nicholas Stuart

It's the one-strike wonder coldly, ruthlessly, designed to take someone out. Utterly. There's nothing subtle about it, nothing courageous, nothing clever – but it's deadly efficient. The flying fist comes without warning, normally from behind, catching the victim unaware. They go straight down. And that's where the damage really begins, when the skull smashes on to the pavement.

That's why deadly is the key word in that last paragraph. This punch is designed to kill. Even if the unsuspecting victim "survives" the attack, in the most basic sense that they remain alive, this is just a fluke. The point is that it's not the punch that kills, but the subsequent collapse of the body; the way the head hits the pavement; and the way the soft and fragile brain ricochets around within the hard casing of the skull, that determines the damage caused by the attack.

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The entire point of such assaults is to cause a severe head injury to the victim. They will, almost inevitably, end up with a disastrous, crippling and cataclysmic beating of the brain. The victim who emerges from this sort of assault is almost always not the same person as they were prior to the bashing.

This is because the brain is only loosely tethered to the skull. When bone comes to a sudden stop it either shatters or remains whole. Not the brain. It's a soft, fragile collection of neurones and synapses that's protected by the skull and normally this is an ideal way of protecting the head. If someone hits the skull, the bone provides a good, all round defence.

Police released footage of the one-punch attack in Civic in the aftermath of Canberra's New Year's Eve celebrations.
Police released footage of the one-punch attack in Civic in the aftermath of Canberra's New Year's Eve celebrations.  

When, however, it's the head that's moving, the whole equation is reversed. Instead of protecting the gooey mass that is the brain, when the bone stops moving it becomes the cause of injury. The brain, one of our most fragile organs, continues moving until it smashes up against the immovable object of the skull. Then it collapses into it – hard.

Cells are destroyed and other vital connections, links that have been slowly built through childhood, puberty, adolescence and youth, are shattered. That's why the person who gets up after such an attack is often not the same person they were prior to the assault. Some people talk about "recovery" after a brain injury ... that's not my experience. Although such victims might, eventually, rejoin society, this doesn't mean they are the same person as they were before the attack.

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This sort of attack is designed to eliminate people. That's why Queensland has created a new charge of unlawful striking causing death. This may or may not work in deterring such attacks – but at least the government there has recognised the problem. Not here.

Simon Corbell is ACT Attorney-General. This is perhaps surprising, particularly when one considers there should be some good talent available in Canberra. Nevertheless, he's got the job. Last week he gave a solid indication that he's been promoted way above his capacity to deliver good outcomes.

ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell is deluded if he thinks nothing should be done to tighten the laws against one-punch ...
ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell is deluded if he thinks nothing should be done to tighten the laws against one-punch attacks.  Photo: Elesa Kurtz

Corbell claimed the current range of offences, such as common assault and intentionally inflicting grievous bodily harm, are perfectly adequate to deal with this style of vicious, unprovoked attack. He insisted that when it comes to framing offences, "a particular charge will attract an appropriate penalty for the behaviour of the offence and degree of culpability involved". Seriously? How can you tell?

The full extent of a head injury may not be apparent for years, but it lasts for life. People's personality can change dramatically. Such attacks can, effectively, murder the mind of the person prior to the assault by transforming them into another person entirely as a result of the damage to the brain.

Corbell may be correct in asserting that there are all sorts of reasons that adding to the severity of penalties may not actually succeed in diminishing the number of attacks. However his attitude of simply saying that everything's OK represents an utter failure of imagination. If he really believes that nothing should be done, the man's deluded. He should make way for someone who's prepared to attempt to find some answers in the coming reshuffle.

Other jurisdictions have understood there's an urgent need to demonstrate how horrified the community is by these attacks. It's not political, it's just common sense. Last week, Victoria, a good Labor state, introduced legislation that will see anyone convicted of such an assault sentenced to a mandatory 10-year term in prison. Increased penalties probably won't, by themselves, result in a decrease in the number of assaults, but it is a way of registering community concern.

In the ACT the maximum, absolute maximum, penalty for common assault is two years' imprisonment. A brain injury lasts for life. The upshot of one of these attacks may be death. Undoubtedly in such cases we could expect the police to press murder charges. But what if, simply by chance, the person attacked manages to survive the attack but is seriously brain injured as a result. They aren't the person they were before. Isn't this also murder in its own way?

Why am I so engaged about this issue? I suffered a severe head injury when my car was hit from behind in Bangkok. I was lucky. I'm still alive, although I'm certainly not the same person as I was prior to the accident in so many ways. Nobody, but nobody, should have to suffer the continuing trauma that results from what the doctors used to describe as an "insult to the brain".

It's difficult for me to write about this issue because it's hard not to allow my contempt for Corbell's relaxed attitude show. If, however, he can't come up with any answers to such a serious problem, I'll be keen to find somebody who can.

Nicholas Stuart is a former president of the National Brain Injury Foundation.