Are new king hit laws cracking down on drunken assaults?

We may like to think we're safe on a night out, but recent cases of alcohol-related violence have shown anyone can fall victim to an unexpected assault. Unfortunately, in some cases these incidents lead to permanent injuries or death.

With all the talk about 'king hits' and alcohol-fuelled violence, some Australian states have changed their laws. It's a good start, but to tackle this issue head-on, we also need a culture change.

The issue with alcohol-related violence

Terry Keenan went to a pub to celebrate 'Mad Monday' at the end of the 2012 football season. He didn’t suspect anything dangerous would happen that night. During the celebrations, Terry was king hit by another patron – and ultimately passed away.

While the patron was cleared of manslaughter charges, Wendy, Terry's wife, was able to sue the pub for not providing enough security guards to make sure the incident didn’t occur. 

Stories of king hits like this are, sadly, common in Australia. And the problem may be getting worse.

Traditionally, experts understood that the rate of harm increased alongside increased alcohol consumption. However, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found in 2015 that alcohol consumption had reached an all-time low, while the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found alcohol-related physical harm increased from 5.9% to 9.7% between 2007 and 2010 for males, and from 3.1% to 6.6% for females.

Alcohol-related violence is also a problem in many other countries. In the United States, for instance, 35% of those assaulted believe their attacker had been drinking. An estimated 50% of violence in in England and Wales is related to alcohol.

Recent tightening of violence laws

Multiple Australian states and territories have enacted changes to laws in recent years.

In Victoria, for instance, the 'coward’s punch' amendment was introduced in 2014, introduced a non-parole period of at least 10 years "for adults convicted of manslaughter when committed by a single punch or in circumstances of gross violence".

New South Wales has also introduced significant changes. An amendment added 'assault causing death' to the crimes act. This included an aggravated version of the offence if the perpetrator was intoxicated – with a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison.

In Western Australia, unlawful assault causing death has been added to the criminal code, while in Queensland an 'unlawful striking causing death' amendment has been added. In 2012, the Northern Territory amended their laws to address violent acts causing death.

There have been no changes in South Australia, Tasmania or the ACT.

What needs to happen next

To tackle this issue properly, we need stronger guidance and specific sentences for one-punch manslaughter.

There has been some progress. In Western Australia, at least 12 cases have been convicted under new laws. No new cases have been prosecuted in Victoria, New South Wales or Queensland under the new laws.

However, legislation alone isn’t enough. We need to see social reforms to tackle deeper cultural issues regarding violence and alcohol.

For example, Queensland introduced its 'one punch' law alongside other reforms addressing alcohol-related violence, including a 'one punch can kill' campaign. New South Wales audited late-trading venues, while in Victoria the government attempted to brand its 'one punch' law as the 'coward’s punch'.

These campaigns can have more power than simply changing existing laws.

What to do if you're king hit

If you or someone you know has been the victim of king hit assault:

  • Act quickly: time limits apply for victim assistance schemes.
  • Report the assault: inform police and, where appropriate, the venue where the injury occurred.
  • Record names and numbers: if possible, get the contact details for witnesses and, where appropriate, venue staff or proprietors.
  • Prepare a statement: this should outline the circumstances of the assault and the injuries sustained.
  • Keep receipts: retain information for any out of pocket expenses incurred.
  • Seek legal advice: this should cover all avenues for legal action.

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Dimi Ioannou

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne
Dimi Ioannou is a Principal Lawyer and Practice Group Leader at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers in charge of the firm’s Public and Product Liability team in Melbourne. Dimi is an accredited specialist in personal injury law. Dimi works in the area of public liability and ...

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