Submission on Crimes Amendment (Provocation) Bill 2013 re Homosexual Advance (or ‘Gay Panic’) Defence

I am writing to make a submission on the Exposure Draft Crimes Amendment (Provocation) Bill 2013, as released by the Attorney-General, the Hon Greg Smith MP, on 17 October 2013.

First, I would like to commend the Attorney-General, and the O’Farrell Government more broadly, for developing a Bill which, if passed, would finally abolish the homosexual advance (or ‘gay panic’) defence.

The homosexual advance defence has long been a stain on the fabric of our criminal justice system, resulting in the ‘downgrading’ of convictions from murder to manslaughter where it is not justified, and in doing so implying that the victim was in some way at fault, even to a small extent that they ‘deserved’ what happened to them.

Sadly, this has not been an abstract injustice, restricted to the statute books, but a defence that has been used, successfully, in multiple criminal trials over the past 20 years. This means that there is every chance that it could be used again, unless and until this Bill is passed.

Which brings me to my first recommendation: The Crimes Amendment (Provocation) Bill 2013 should be passed as soon as possible. This will help ensure that no future victim is disrespected by the fact their murderer escapes with a lesser conviction, and probable reduced sentence, simply because that murderer had a homophobic reaction to the victim’s non-violent sexual advance.

If, for whatever reason, the NSW Government is unable to progress this legislation with the urgency that it requires then, as a fall-back, I suggest that it consider amending clause 2 of the Bill to ensure that the Act has retrospective application.

Specifically, if the legislation is not passed by the end of the first sittings in 2014 (on Thursday March 27th), consideration should be given to back-dating the legislation to take effect from the date the Government formally confirmed its intention to introduce these reforms through the release of this Exposure Draft (ie on 17 October 2013).

I acknowledge that this would be a drastic step for any Parliament to take. No-one should casually amend the criminal law in such a way, especially where the offence involved carries significant penalties, without a compelling justification.

But I sincerely believe that a case for doing so could be made in these circumstances: that the injustice of our legal system effectively saying that a killing is less offensive, less contrary to community standards, less worthy of punishment than other killings, simply because the non-violent sexual advance involved was from one man to another, is so great that the question of retrospective application at least merits further debate.

Despite this, my overall preference would be for the Bill to be passed without including such provisions, and that this happen in the shortest possible timeframe, making retrospectivity less of a pressing concern.

My second recommendation deals with another potential issue which would remain unresolved even if the Exposure Draft Bill was passed, and that is: The new Crimes Act section 23, introduced by the Crimes Amendment (Provocation) Bill 2013, should specify that the ordinary person is not homophobic.

The Exposure Draft Bill includes multiple safeguards to help ensure that a non-violent sexual advance, whether same-sex or heterosexual, cannot be used as the basis of the partial defence of extreme provocation.

Specifically, proposed new sub-section 23(2)(b) requires that the conduct of the deceased was a “serious indictable offence”, which would clearly not include a non-violent sexual advance. Even more categorically, sub-section 23(3)(a) ensures that the partial defence cannot be raised in circumstances where “the conduct was only a non-violent sexual advance to the accused.” I strongly support the inclusion of both provisions.

However, in the event of a contested murder prosecution, there can be doubt about the boundary between what constitutes a non-violent sexual advance and a violent sexual advance. This doubt can, and often will, be exploited by a defendant, especially because the victim is not available to provide their version of events. It would be a potentially perverse, although perhaps unavoidable, consequence of the Government’s reforms that it would introduce an even greater incentive for a defendant to establish that the victim’s sexual advance was itself violent.

If the defendant is successful in establishing that the victim’s sexual advance was indeed violent (or that there is at least some evidence to support this: see proposed sub-section 23(7)), then proposed sub-section 23(2)(d) becomes relevant, and it maintains the existing ‘ordinary person’ test to assess whether the loss of self-control is accepted as the basis of this partial defence.

It is possible that, given hardening community attitudes against rape, any violent sexual advance, irrespective of the sexes or genders of the people involved, would now satisfy the ‘ordinary person’ test in terms of partially excusing that loss of self-control. If that is the case, then there would be no unjustified discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the law would not require further amendment.

However, it is also possible that a male defendant could claim a violent sexual advance from another man is more egregious or offensive, and therefore more worthy of the application of the partial defence, than a violent sexual advance in other circumstances (eg a violent sexual advance from a woman to a man).

Based on the existing case-law (including Green v The Queen 1997), there is a possibility that this argument would be accepted – the consequence of which being that, once again, the killing of someone who makes a same-sex sexual advance would be treated as less serious than the killing of someone who makes a heterosexual sexual advance in the same circumstances (the only difference being that both would now be violent).

Given the significant step forward overall which would be achieved by the passage of this Bill, I do not wish to see it undermined by the ongoing possibility of such homophobic discrimination, which is why I propose that new section 23 include a provision that, at least for the purposes of this partial defence, the ordinary person is not homophobic, bi-phobic, trans-phobic or prejudiced towards intersex people (specifically, the ordinary person does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status).

As with  the suggestion about retrospectivity, discussed earlier, this would be an unusual step for a Parliament to take, and leaves open for consideration a range of other factors which may or may not need to be prescribed (for example, that the ordinary person is not racist or sexist). I make no comment here about those or other factors (other than noting that, whatever list may be deemed necessary include, it should be inclusive rather than exhaustive).

Nevertheless, given we are fully aware that the law has allowed homophobic discrimination within the partial defence of provocation in the past, I believe we should be actively considering how to prevent further such discrimination in the future within the new partial defence of extreme provocation. Even if the section itself is not amended, alternatives could include either or both the explanatory memorandum and second reading speech noting that it is not the Parliament’s intention that the new partial defence should operate in a homophobic manner.

Leaving aside these two recommendations, it is my firm belief that the passage of the Crimes Amendment (Provocation) Bill 2013 would be a significant, and long-overdue, achievement. This is something that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community has been campaigning on for many years: it is my sincere hope that the homosexual advance (or gay panic’’) defence will finally be consigned to the dustbin of history in the very near future.

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