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Key Takeaways

What is a coward punch?
A ‘sucker punch’, otherwise known as a coward punch, king hit, knockout punch or cheap shot, one-punch assault is an unexpected and unprovoked attack, usually to the head or neck of the victim. As it is a forceful blow delivered without warning, it often knocks the victim unconscious, which creates great risk of further head trauma if they fall and hit the ground.

 

What is a Sucker Punch?

A sucker punch is when a person assaults another person by intentionally hitting the other person with a part of his or her body or with an object, usually a single hit to the head or neck, that causes the other person’s death without a lawful excuse. These attacks are often unprovoked and without warning. This is also known as the “coward punch” or “king hit” and carries heavy penalties of up to 20 years imprisonment under section 25A Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).

According to research conducted by the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, over 127 Australians have lost their lives to coward punches, which does not include those left injured or traumatised.

Those involved in coward punch attacks are overwhelmingly men, usually aged between 18 and 23-years-old. Such attacks normally occur between 10pm and 4am, with 12% resulting in death.

A majority (73%) of fatal one-punch attacks involve alcohol. For perpetrators, alcohol can create increased aggression, whereas for victims it can increase risk of injury, as it can impair ability to react to an incoming punch or attack.

This article is a guide on the law on sucker punches in Australia. For tailored advice or more information, our friendly assault lawyers Sydney team can be available for a confidential chat.

One-punch attacks are criminalised across Australia. Serious offences have been introduced across the country which specifically target where sucker punches result in death, often with minimum mandatory sentences.

 

Coward Punch Laws in New South Wales (NSW)

The coward punch laws, also known as sucker punch laws, in New South Wales prescribe a maximum penalty of up to 20 years imprisonment if a person assaults another person by intentionally hitting the other person with any part of his/her body or with an object held by him/her, without a lawful excuse, that ends up causing the other person to die.

Section 25A of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) prescribes this, and the courts take this offence seriously.

If a person who commits this offence while intoxicated as a result of having voluntarily consumed alcohol or illicit drugs, the maximum penalty rises to 25 years imprisonment, under section 25A(2) Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).

These penalties will apply even if an assault that caused the other person to die was caused directly from the assault or from hitting the ground or an object as a consequence of that assault.

These penalties also still apply if the perpetrator did not reasonably foresee that death would result from committing this offence.

 

What are the Defences to a Sucker Punch Offence?

You will be not guilty to a sucker punch offence in New South Wales, if:

  • You acted involuntarily or unintentionally, which may be caused by some forms of epilepsy, sleepwalking, post traumatic loss of control from head injury.
  • You acted in self-defence.
  • You acted involuntarily committed in a state of automatism by a disease of the mind, or a mental health or cognitive impairment (insane defence of mental illness).

If you commit this offence while under the influence of an illicit drug or alcohol, you will not be guilty if:

  • The intoxication was not self-induced, or
  • You had a significant cognitive impairment at the time (not being a temporary self-induced impairment)

If you are charged for murder or manslaughter, but there is insufficient evidence to prove it, the court can acquit you of murder or manslaughter yet find you guilty of a sucker punch offence if the evidence proves it.

Click here for more on assault charges.

 

Is There Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Sucker Punch Offences?

Any person guilty of committing a sucker punch offence while intoxicated will receive an imprisonment sentence of not less than 8 years. Any non-parole period for the sentence is required to be at least 8 years. These penalties are mandatory for a Judge to impose to anyone guilty of this crime in New South Wales, according to section 25B Crimes Act.

The non-parole period is the minimum period required to spend in a prison before being eligible for release back in the community while on parole.

 

Brisbane Coward Punch | Queensland

In Queensland, reform occurred in 2014 to strengthen laws in relation to one-punch attacks.

As per section 314A of the Criminal Code 1899 (QLD), it is an offence to unlawfully strike another person to the head or neck, causing their death.

A strike is defined as where a person directly applies force to another by punching or kicking (or otherwise hitting using any part of the body) with or without the use of a dangerous or offensive weapon or instrument.

Notably, intent to kill the deceased or reasonable foreseeability of death or grievous bodily harm is not required to be proven.

This prevents those accused of this offence from stating that they did not intend to kill the deceased.

The striking of another person will be deemed unlawful, and thus fall within the offence’s scope unless it is authorised or justified or excused by law.

For example, a person will not be deemed criminally responsible if the act of striking the other person is done as part of a socially acceptable function or activity and is reasonable in the circumstances.

This could be applicable in sporting events such as boxing.

A maximum penalty of life imprisonment is applicable. However, where the court sentences a person to a term of imprisonment, they must serve the lesser of 80% of the prison term, or 15 years.

This means that courts are restrained from setting a non-parole period that is less than 80% of the head sentence, or 15 years (whichever is less).

However, this is not applicable where, the person is sentenced to life imprisonment, the person has an indefinite sentence, the court sentences an ‘intensive correction order’ or whole or part of the sentence is suspended.

 

Coward Punch Melbourne | Melbourne

In Victoria, reform occurred in 2014 to strengthen laws related to one-punch attacks.

Section 4A of the Crimes Act 1958 (VIC) states that a single punch or strike is to be taken to be a ‘dangerous act’ in prosecutions of ‘manslaughter by an unlawful and dangerous act’.

It catches a single punch or strike that is delivered to any part of a person’s head or neck and causes an injury to the head or neck.

Manslaughter by an unlawful and dangerous act is applicable where the accused causes the death of the deceased through doing something which is deemed ‘unlawful and dangerous’.

Ordinarily, a court will deem whether an Act is dangerous by assessing whether a reasonable person in the position of the accused would have appreciated that the act exposed another person to a risk of serious injury.

The section prescribes that it is irrelevant whether the single punch or strike is one of a series of punches or strikes.

It states that a single punch or strike may be the cause of a person’s death even if the injury from which the person dies is not the injury that the punch or strike itself caused, but another injury which resulted from an impact to the person’s head or neck, or to another part of the person’s body.

For example, if a person punches another person to the head, and that other person falls, hits their head on the road, and dies from the injury resulting from their head hitting the road, the punch may still be the cause of their death.

The maximum penalty applicable is 25 years imprisonment.

However, the court must impose a term of imprisonment and a minimum non-parole period of not less than 10 years, unless it finds that a special reason exists. This is outlined in section 9C of the Sentencing Act 1991 (VIC).

This is applicable in circumstances where the victim was not expecting to be punched or struck by the offender, and the offender knew that the victim was not expecting or was probably not expecting.

Where an offender warned the victim of the punch or strike immediately before delivering it, it may nonetheless be deemed that the victim was not expecting to be punched or struck by the offender.

This is due to circumstances in which the offender might only warn the victim of the punch so close to the time of its delivery that the victim is not expecting to be punched.

The Court may make a finding that a special reason exists to avoid imposing the minimum sentence where the offender has assisted or has given an undertaking to assist law enforcement authorities in the investigation or prosecution of an offence.

It may also do so in circumstances where the offender proves that they had reduced mental functioning which can be linked to the offence, and thus reduces their culpability (i.e., blameworthiness). An offender’s mental functioning can also be relevant where it would expose them to a substantially greater burden or risks in custody.

However, this does not apply to impaired mental functioning caused substantially by self-induced intoxication.

Other special reasons include where the court proposes to make a Court Secure Treatment Order or a residential treatment order, or there are substantial and compelling circumstances that are exceptional and rare that justify doing so.

In determining this, the Court will have regard to deterrence and denunciation of the offender’s conduct and is required to give less weight to the personal circumstances of the offender when compared to matters such as the nature and gravity of the offence.

It is not permitted to have regard to the offender’s previous good character, an early guilty plea, prospects of rehabilitation or parity with other sentences in this endeavour.

 

Western Australia

In Western Australia, laws concerning ‘one punch’ attacks were introduced in 2008 as a downgraded homicide alternative to murder and manslaughter.

This offence is prescribed in section 281 of the Western Australian Criminal Code 1913 (WA).

It states that where a person unlawfully assaults another who dies as a direct or indirect result of the assault, they face a maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment.

An accused person will be deemed criminally responsible even if they did not intend or foresee the death of the other person, and even if the death was not reasonably foreseeable.

Where the offence is committed by an adult offender during an aggravated home burglary, the court sentencing the offender must impose at least 15 years imprisonment.

If the offender is a juvenile, the court is instead required to sentence them to at least 3 years imprisonment if the offence occurs during an aggravated home burglary.

 

Tasmania

In Tasmania, there is no specific offence related to ‘one punch’ attacks, with the state instead relying on existing offences in legislation that can capture such incidents (i.e., assault, causing grievous bodily harm, or homicide offences).

However, the state passed new laws in 2019, which sought to make it more difficult for those charged with manslaughter after a one-punch attack that causes death to avoid conviction.

The amendments specifically amended the defence of ‘accident’ to make it clearer, as well as the excuse of ‘being intoxicated’ to ensure it cannot be used for random acts of violence.

Section 13 of the Criminal Code Act 1924 (TAS) relates to ‘intention and motive’, which essentially refers to an accused’s state of mind.

Before the amendments, the section provided that a person was not criminally responsible for an act “which occurs by chance”. However, a specific explanation of what it means for an event to occur “by chance” is now included.

It provides that a person will not be criminally responsible for an act where the person does not intend or foresee as a possible consequence, and that an ordinary person would not reasonably foresee such a possible consequence.

This means that even where an accused person did not intend for death or grievous bodily harm to occur, and they did not foresee this, the law will still find them criminally responsible if an ordinary person similarly situated would have foreseen the event as a possible consequence.

However, a person will not be excused from criminal responsibility for death, or grievous bodily harm, that results to a victim because of a defect, weakness, or abnormality of the victim.

Section 11C of the Sentencing Act 1997 (TAS) also now provides that courts cannot view self-induced intoxication (i.e., from alcohol or drugs) as a mitigating factor.

This was introduced due to how prevalent the influence of intoxication is in one punch attacks, including due to largely arising following conflicts outside pubs and clubs.

However, intoxication may be considered where it is ‘involuntary’, in that it resulted from fraud, reasonable mistake, or duress.

 

Northern Territory

 In the Northern Territory, the offence of ‘violent act causing death’ was introduced to cover the situation of deaths as a result of one-punch or strike in 2012.

Section 161A of the Criminal Code Act 1983 (NT) states that it is an offence to engage in conduct involving a violent act to another person, where that conduct causes the death of another person.

It provides that ‘strict liability’ applies to the element of the conduct causing another’s death which essentially means that the accused does not need to intend or be reckless as to this result.

However, a defence is provided where the violent conduct is engaged for the purpose of benefiting the other person or it is part of a socially acceptable function or activity (i.e., boxing, or other sports), where it is reasonable.

It defines conduct involving a violent act as involving the direct application of force of a violent nature to a person, whether or not an offensive weapon is used. Examples include a blow, hit, kick, punch, or strike.

A maximum penalty of 16 years imprisonment is applicable.

 

Coward Punch Canberra: Australian Capital Territory

In the Australian Capital Territory, there is no specific offence which relates to one punch attacks.

The territory instead utilises its existing criminal legislation which it states applies to this type of violence in the same way it applies to other violent acts. This includes assaults, causing grievous bodily harm, and homicide offences – as outlined in the Crimes Act 1900 (ACT).

 

South Australia

In South Australia, there are also no specific offence which relates to one punch attacks. The state instead relies on existing offences in legislation that can capture such incidents (i.e., assault, causing serious harm to another, or homicide offences).

The South Australian state government has previously stated that it has ‘no plans’ to introduce ‘one punch’ laws including by introducing mandatory sentencing schemes.

Looking for more? Get in touch with our experienced criminal lawyers Sydney team to arrange a consultation.

 

By Poppy Morandin and Jimmy Singh.

AUTHOR Criminal Defence Lawyers Australia

Criminal Defence Lawyers Australia are Leading Criminal Defence Lawyers, Delivering Exceptional Results in all Australian Courts.

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