Sometimes the generally sensible SMH legal affairs pundit Richard “Justinian” Ackland has a brain spasm. Today’s column is an example. He argues that it’s unfair for the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions to use relatively new statutory powers to seize or freeze “chequebook journalism” funds offered to criminals (and alleged criminals) for interviews.
The immediate impetus for Ackland’s outburst was an apparent offer of $100,000 by the Seven network Today Tonight program for an interview with security guard Karen Brown, who is accused of gunning down a bloke after he bashed her with brass knuckles and robbed her of a payroll.
Ackland’s principal arguments are:
- The bizarre bleeding heart proposition that criminals already suffer enough in the criminal justice system without being deprived of the otherwise legal fruits of their crimes.
- Any chequebook journalism proceeds are probably going to be absorbed by lawyers’ fees anyway, and might sometimes save taxpayers the cost of funding the criminal’s defence on legal aid.
Ackland’s first argument really speaks for itself. But the second one merits comment. It might sometimes be the case that chequebook journalism proceeds will be partly used to pay legal fees, but in many if not most cases criminals cash in after the court process is complete rather than before. Thus, the interview payment is a windfall that goes straight in the criminal’s pocket.
Given that compensation schemes for crime victims are capped at $25,000 in the Northern Territory and some other jurisdictions, there’s something vaguely obscene about Ackland arguing that offenders are being unfairly treated by being deprived of four times that amount for inflicting the injury! Victims don’t seem to loom large for Ackland.
Even in Karen Brown’s case, the proposition that Seven’s $100,000 will all end up in the lawyers’ pockets is dubious. Without canvassing in an improper way the merits of a sub judice case, the evidence seems fairly straightforward. It’s not likely to be a long trial, and Brown won’t need batteries of high-powered QCs to defend her. Unless there are appellate proceedings, her legal costs are unlikely to be as much as $100,000. When you consider that we might conceivably be dealing with a case of hot-blooded deadly revenge rather than self-defence, the deterrent and exemplary principle of preventing the alleged criminal from profiting by her alleged crime seems a sound one.
In fact, I’d like to see the scheme extended further. I’d be more than happy to see retrospective legislation allowing the confiscation of all money ever earned by Chopper Read from cashing in on his life of crime as a murderous standover man. None of the arguments of principle against retrospectivity have much force in this area. (Link is to a page in the excellent and fascinating Melbourne Crime website).