Criminal Law Consolidation (Assaults on Prescribed Emergency Workers) Amendment Bill

Second Reading

Today, I introduce the Criminal Law Consolidation (Assaults on Prescribed Emergency Workers) Amendment Bill 2019. The bill is incredibly important in providing assurance to our front-line emergency workers by better protecting the state's police, emergency services workers, front-line medical officers and other law enforcement officers from assaults. The major purpose of this bill is to create a new offence in the Criminal Law Consolidation Act 1935 where a person spits at or throws or otherwise applies blood, saliva, semen, faeces or urine on a prescribed emergency worker in the course of their duties.

Unfortunately, such an assault is all too common for our front-line police and emergency service workers, with spit, blood, urine or faeces being used to harm police and other officers whilst in their line of duty. I thank the Commissioner for Police for raising this unattended concern with me for action and welcome the stand-alone offence being created in this bill.

Whilst our courts do see assaults using bodily fluids and appropriately sentence in line with the seriousness of these actions, it has been vital to create an offence that stands apart from assaults and assaults causing harm in the criminal law. This government is sending a clear message to those who are disorderly, disrespectful and violent toward our police, ambulance workers, doctors, nurses, firefighters and front-line officers that this behaviour is unacceptable and should be treated as such in the criminal law.

Under the bill, this stand-alone offence will cover those defined as a prescribed emergency worker and provide a maximum penalty accordingly; however, it can also be applied to offences committed against people not working in emergency services. A prescribed emergency worker is defined to mean a paid worker or a volunteer who is a police officer; prison officer; youth training centre officer; a member of the SA Ambulance Service, the Country Fire Service, the Metropolitan Fire Service or the State Emergency Service; a law enforcement officer; or a person prescribed in the regulations including regulations made under section 5AA(1)(ka).

The maximum penalty for this new offence is four years' imprisonment, or five years' imprisonment if harm is caused to the victim. In developing this definition, I have been pleased to consult with the Public Service Association, the Australian Nurses and Midwifery Federation, the United Fire Fighters Union, the Australian Medical Association, the CFS Volunteers Association, the Police Association of SA and South Australia Police. It has been integral to ensure that, beyond police officers and ambulance workers, we also provide protections to those workers not always considered frontline, but who, on a day-to-day basis, face the same challenges and pressures.

During work on this bill, I received advice from the Country Fire Service Volunteers Association. This is a group often forgotten, yet they play an important role as front-line volunteers. The CFS Volunteers Association confirmed with my office that the government's approach in this bill, in including volunteers in this list, aligns with the South Australian Fire and Emergency Services Act 2005 and ensures the inclusion of all CFS volunteers within the bill. Furthermore, I have received information from the Australian Nurses and Midwifery Foundation, who I recently met with, regarding the inclusion of emergency nurses as prescribed persons, and I thank Roslyn and Lisa for their work and advocacy on this.

The scenarios and anecdotes provided to me by the ANMF are alarming, to say the least. The sheer disrespect and abuse that nurses receive on a day-to-day basis often goes unreported, even where such serious matters like assault potentially occur. I look forward to considering the submission from the ANMF in further detail, and I will continue to work with these aforementioned groups to determine precisely which categories of workers they represent should be included in the associated regulations. Beyond this substantive part of the bill, a consequential amendment is also made to the Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Act 2004 to enable blood samples to be taken from these offenders.

The second thing that is to be achieved by this bill is the amending of existing provisions of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act in respect of certain workers who are victims of aggravated offending. The act provides that some offences have a basic form and also an aggravated form where the maximum penalty is significantly greater than that of the basic form of the offence.

Section 5AA of the act sets out the circumstances that would lead to an offence being aggravated. This includes in section 5AA(1)(c), where the offender committed the offence against a police officer, prison officer or other law enforcement officer, knowing the victim to be acting in the course of his or her official duty, or in retribution for something the offender knows or believes to have been done by the victim in the course of his or her official duty.

The bill adds employees in training centres to this list of workers, as they are not, strictly speaking, prison officers but they are front-line workers all the same. This change will ensure that the aggravated form of offending extends to those victims whose duties include the supervision of youths detained in a training centre. Section 5AA(1)(k)(ii) extends the aggravated form of offending to victims who have engaged in other classes of prescribed occupation or employment.

The regulations currently prescribe, for the purposes of section 5AA(1)(k)(ii), emergency work; employment as a medical practitioner in a hospital; employment as a nurse or a midwife in a hospital; an occupation consisting of the provision of assistance or services in a hospital to a medical practitioner, nurse or midwife acting in the course of his or her employment in the hospital; and passenger transport work.

'Emergency work' means work carried out whether or not in response to an emergency, by or on behalf of the Country Fire Service, Metropolitan Fire Service, State Emergency Service, SA Ambulance Service, St John Ambulance, Surf Life Saving, Royal Flying Doctor Service, Volunteer Marine Rescue or the accident or emergency department of a hospital. By including other front-line and emergency workers in this context, our most vulnerable on-duty workers will have charges appropriately sentenced, accounting for their role at work and role in protecting the community.

The bill also replaces section 5AA(1)(k)(ii) with a new section 5AA(1)(ka) (I must have called that the Leon Byner clause) in order to enable the regulations to extend to people who are either in paid employment or are volunteers. This will ensure that two persons who work for the CFS, for example, receive the same protection under the law, whether they are paid employees or volunteers. This is an important initiative to protect our emergency services.

In conjunction with this change to section 5AA(1)(k), the government is currently working to make further regulations under new section 5AA(1)(ka) to include other paid or volunteer work in the list of prescribed occupations or employment, in addition to those currently prescribed under section 5AA(1)(k)(ii). This could include protective security officers, court sheriffs, bailiffs appointed to the South Australian Civil and Administrative Tribunal and civilian workers who are employed to provide support services within SA Police.

I again thank the Public Service Association for their work in assisting to develop this group and further workers who should be added into such regulations. Further amendments to the Criminal Law Consolidation Act increase by one year the maximum penalty for certain offences where the victim is a worker referred to in section 5AA(1)(c) or in regulations made under the new section 5AA(1)(ka). The current penalties for these offences are set somewhat low and the proposed increase will further assist to deter such offending against police and emergency workers.

The penalties also amended are for the offence of making unlawful threats to cause harm in section 19(2) of the act, the offences of assault in section 20 of the act, the offence of recklessly causing harm in section 24(2) of the act, and the offence relating to acts likely to cause harm in section 29(3) of the act. These are all other offences that have varying degrees of penalty, some carrying 10, 15 or 25 years of imprisonment.

Beyond the additions to the criminal law, the bill importantly deals with necessary changes in the way courts sentence assaults and offences against front-line workers. The bill amends the Sentencing Act 2017 so that, when a court is sentencing an offender for an offence, the court must take into account in setting a penalty the need to protect the police and other emergency service workers. Currently, the courts must consider the safety of the community paramount to other sentencing considerations, and that aspect will not change.

I have welcomed proposals from both South Australia Police, in particular the Commissioner of Police, and the Police Association of SA, advocated by Mr Mark Carroll, to add a secondary sentence consideration for the courts when sentencing an offender charged with a police-related offence. We have listened, and that has been incorporated.

Finally, the bill repeals the assault police offence in section 6(1) of the Summary Offences Act 1953. The maximum penalty for this offence is a $10,000 fine or imprisonment for two years. This change has occurred following a direct request of the Police Association. Although included in this bill, I will continue to work with the association and SAPOL on the practical changes associated with this repeal. Currently, assaults against police can be charged either under section 6(1) of the Summary Offences Act or, more seriously, under section 20 of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act.

Section 6 assaults have served a purpose in ensuring assaults can be appropriately charged, and I have supported their use. Despite this, assaults against police should be charged appropriately and treated as seriously as their nature requires. The government expects that these assaults will instead be charged as aggravated assaults under section 20 of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act, where the maximum penalty as amended by this bill will be four years' imprisonment or, where the assault causes harm, up to five years' imprisonment.

I look forward to continuing to work with the aforementioned associations on all these matters and other reform to protect both our community and front-line emergency service workers. Assaults on police, ambulance workers, doctors, nurses and other front-line workers should be treated with the highest regard. As a community, we should not tolerate the daily abuse, assault and harm caused to these workers. I commend the bill to members and I table a copy of the explanation of clauses.

Debate adjourned on motion of Ms Cook.