Criminal Law

By Peter Woodhouse


Assange sentence – a good lesson on bail laws

The average Joe or Joanna probably doesn’t have an accurate understanding of Australian bail laws.  A lot of people think of the U.S. style system where you have to stump-up a large sum of money as a bond in order to secure your release and if you skip town, Dog the Bounty Hunter will be hot on your tail.

Our system is quite different.

Australian bail laws are largely about mitigating risk.  On the one hand is the presumption of innocence and the right to liberty.  The other is the risk an accused person will:

  1. Fail to appear in Court;
  2. Commit further offences whilst on bail; and/or
  3. Interfere with evidence or witnesses.

When deciding to grant bail a Court will look at whether any bail conditions can be imposed to ameliorate any of the risks outlined above.  In some circumstances where there is a risk of flight, the accused may be required to deposit money into the Court (we call it a surety) as a guarantee that they will appear.  But that is as close to the U.S. system as we get.

Often, other conditions are imposed like reporting in to police on a regular basis or not contacting witnesses or the alleged victim.

Whatever conditions might be added, all bail matters involve an agreement by the accused to appear at Court when required.

That brings me to Julian Assange and his recent difficulties in the U.K. which has similar bail laws to Australia.

On Wednesday, Assange was sentenced to 50 weeks imprisonment for failing to appear in a British Court, in accordance with his bail undertaking.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will recall that Assange skipped bail in June 2012 and sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy.  He stayed in the embassy for almost 7 years, before he wore out his welcome.

Whilst the merits for Assange seeking refuge in the embassy and the legitimacy of the original extradition proceedings could be debated until the cows come home, this case illustrates the seriousness of bail laws and the condign punishment that is imposed when they are flouted.

In sentencing Assange, Judge Deborah Taylor noted Assange’s ‘deliberate attempt to delay justice’.  She found that his breach was at the high end of objective seriousness, noting:

“In terms of harm, there are several features of this case which put this in the A1 category … by entering the embassy you deliberately put yourself out of reach, whilst remaining in the UK. You remained there for nearly seven years, exploiting your privileged position to flout the law and advertise internationally your disdain for the laws of this country.”

Judge Taylor, in imposing a sentence of 50 weeks imprisonment, came very close to imposing the maximum penalty available for failing to appear in the U.K.  When doing so, she sent an unequivocally strong message to the community – bail conditions and undertakings to appear in Court are to be taken seriously and when you disobey or disregard them you can expect to find yourself in jail.