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Enable victims to appeal sentence leniency

Question without notice

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (11:46): My question is to the Attorney-General, Ms Symes. It follows the public outrage over the sentencing last week of Richard Pusey to potentially only one further week in jail for his actions following the 2020 Eastern Freeway crash that killed four police officers. To most Victorians this was yet another sentencing decision amongst so many over a long period of time completely out of kilter with community expectations and values and an insult to victims’ families. I do note the Attorney’s public statement last week that she did not wish to comment on individual sentencing decisions, so I ask—this is my more general question—what is the government’s position on whether victims of crime in particular should be provided with the opportunity to ask the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to seek leave to appeal the apparent leniency of a sentence?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Resources) (11:47): I thank Ms Maxwell for her question at the outset. Ms Maxwell, thank you for your question. In relation to my position on not publicly commenting on individual cases, that is not something new that was from last week. I made that very clear upon being appointed to the position of Attorney-General. I certainly have no intention of compromising the independence of our courts or the DPP by running commentary on sentencing decisions. Nonetheless of course I too am very aware of the public opinion in relation to this case. I would point out that the judge’s assessment I think we can all agree with—that Mr Pusey’s conduct was callous and reprehensible and had a profound impact on the families of the four slain officers, who of course we paid tribute to with a minute’s silence last sitting day. There are no excuses for the conduct of Mr Pusey, and he was rightly condemned by the sentencing judge for it. It is understandable of course that this behaviour has provoked a strong and public outcry.

I agree with Ms Maxwell that decisions about sentencing must be responsive to community expectations and the values that we share as a society, and as Ms Maxwell has noted, it is critical that our courts can sentence people independently and without political interference. I am sure that is something that this house expects and indeed the community does.

In terms of Ms Maxwell’s question in relation to the involvement of victims in decisions made by the DPP, I would like to point out that there have been several changes over recent times to strengthen the roles of victims in criminal trial processes. In 2018, for example, we passed laws that required the DPP to strengthen victims’ rights to be given information to be consulted during court proceedings. Those laws specifically require the director to seek victims’ views before making a decision to appeal a sentence. However, it is important to remember that an appeal against a sentence can only be filed by the DPP if she considers that the sentence imposed was manifestly inadequate and that an appeal would be in the public interest.

I have met with the DPP a number of times, and certainly the views of victims and how the Office of Public Prosecutions can better support victims is something that is front of mind of that organisation, and I commend them for their commitment in that regard. I can assure you that their work has victims at front of mind in the way that they go about their business. I thank you for your ongoing interest in this matter and I am always happy to have these conversations with you, Ms Maxwell.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (11:50): Thank you, Attorney. Attorney, I imagine you would be aware of the existence in this field of policy of the UK’s unduly lenient sentence scheme. Under clear criteria and guidelines, this scheme allows anyone to ask the Attorney-General’s office to review a sentence they regard as too low. It has operated highly successfully since the 1980s, resulting annually in dozens of increases to sentences that were later agreed to have been too lenient originally. It is my party’s view that such a scheme could have great value in Victoria, including in lifting the low levels of public confidence in court sentencing. I therefore ask, Attorney, as my supplementary question whether the government has given any consideration to the merits of the potential introduction in Victoria of an unduly lenient sentence scheme or a model along very similar lines?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Resources) (11:51): I thank Ms Maxwell for her supplementary question highlighting alternative approaches in relation to sentencing appeals and the like. I am certainly aware of the UK model. I have not had extensive briefings on it nor have I conducted my own independent research, but it is a significant departure from the Victorian model here.

I can assure you I get a lot of emails asking me to intervene and personally review cases. The independence of the courts from the Parliament is something that I am a supporter of, and as I have previously said in my answer to your substantive question, the DPP is responsible for reviewing sentences independently and deciding whether or not there should be an appeal. I think that the value of that independence has received bipartisan support over many, many years and indeed is entrenched in the Victorian constitution, so it is my view and that of the government that decisions about sentencing should be done with that.