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Automatism Defence Explored By Client on Serious Charges

Our client was charged with manslaughter and dangerous operation of a vehicle causing death pursuant to sections 303 and 302A of the Criminal Code 1899 respectively. The charges were a result of a collision that our client could not recall. The client initially attended our office thinking that the matter would be resolved at the first court hearing. Her hope was that the charges would be withdrawn on the basis of her age and background. After a conference with her lawyers, the client became aware of the significant penalties attracted for a conviction for this kind of offending. She was able to walk away with a better understanding of several aspects of the criminal law and ended up contesting the charges on the basis of the defence of automatism.

Prior to identifying a defence to the allegations against her, the client was made aware of the following matters.

Serious charges do not just go away

We explained to the client that there are strict processes in place for negotiating the withdrawal and/or downgrading of criminal charges. With her matter, as with any other matter, there was scope to case conference with the Crown and make submissions for charges to be withdrawn. However, in circumstances where there has been a death, it is very unlikely that the Crown will be willing to agree to withdraw the charge unless there is a significant and reasonable basis for them to do so.

All criminal matters in Queensland commence in the Magistrates Court. Whilst the Magistrates Court can finalise most matters, there are certain charges that can only be dealt with by the District and Supreme Courts. Manslaughter can only be finalised in the Supreme Court.

If a charge has to be dealt with by a higher court, then the matter must go through a committal process which includes disclosure of the brief, cross-examination of witnesses, legal arguments, presentation of the indictment and then listing the matter for trial or sentence. This process can easily take up to a year.

Penalties associated with the offences

All courts in Queensland are guided by the penalties outlined in the Criminal Code 1899 and associated provisions of the Penalties and Sentences Act 1992. Additionally, the court will also consider the outcomes of other cases.

The Court of Appeal has dealt with a number of cases where the circumstances were similar to the allegations against this client and the broad range for sentences included terms of imprisonment of up to 10 years. If a 10-year term of imprisonment is imposed for an offence of manslaughter, there is a mandatory ‘serious violent offender’ declaration and the defendant must be required to serve 8 years before becoming eligible for release.

Possible defence of automatism

Once the client became aware of the seriousness of the charges against her, she was able to provide us with instructions about her background and properly identify a point of concern in her medical history. This allowed us to refer her to a neurologist and cardiologist to obtain reports to see if there were any underlying concerns.

Once we received the relevant reports, it became clear that there was a defence of ‘automatism’ (under section 23 of the Criminal Code 1899) open to the defendant. This is a very complex defence to run and it was further complicated by the defendant’s memory loss. There were also significant disputes with the Crown about experts and their findings.

Outcome: charges withdrawn after automatism defence explored

This matter was protracted and ran for approximately four years. However, it ultimately resulted in the client being discharged because we were able to conference with the Crown and outline the weaknesses in their case supported by the expert evidence.

One of the most significant features of this matter was that the defendant sought assistance immediately and we were able to properly explain all aspects of her case to her. It was only after she fully understood the charges and the criminal process that she was able to provide us instructions that raised a defence.

Defences in Queensland are governed by the Criminal Code 1899. There is, effectively, a restrictive set of circumstances that must be met in order to establish a defence. It is not always apparent, particularly in difficult cases, that a defence may exist in that matter. For instance, in an ‘assault’ matter it is clear that ‘self-defence’ is a common defence. However, as with this defendant, there is limited scope for a complex defence to be raised without proper instructions. The concerning feature of this matter was that if the defendant had not appreciated her case and sought legal advice at an early stage, there was a real possibility that she would not have given instructions to her lawyers to explore the defence of automatism. This may have resulted in her being convicted of a very serious offence.

If you require legal advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.

Ali Rana - Practice Director - Brisbane

This article was written by Ali Rana - Practice Director - Brisbane

Ali Rana is a Practice Director and practises exclusively in criminal law. Ali is a seasoned advocate and regularly represents clients in the Magistrates, District and Supreme Courts of Queensland. Ali has significant experience representing clients in all types of criminal matters, particularly serious criminal offences. Ali is focused on the fundamental rights of his clients and ensuring that they...

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