Thursday, October 27, 2011

Omission? What omission?

For discussion of liability for omissions under the law of the Commonwealth of Australia, see Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions v Poniatowska [2011] HCA 43 (26 October 2011).

The majority held that legislation had failed to specify what act that was omitted was necessary for the actus reus of an offence of engaging in conduct that resulted in the obtaining a financial advantage that the defendant knew or believed he was not eligible to receive. Here, conduct is defined as including an omission to perform an act, and an omission is only a physical element of an offence if the law creating the offence makes it so.

The legislature, anticipating this glitch, introduced a new section (s 66A) into the relevant legislation. This enabled the requiring of a person to do a specific act in the relevant circumstances, namely to give information. Omission to do that specified act would apparently be sufficient for this element of the actus reus.

Heydon J, dissenting, criticised the increasing vagueness of statutory criminal law. He referred to

" ... the proposition advanced by the responsible Minister, when the Code was introduced into the House of Representatives in 1995, that it would reflect Benthamite ideals of certainty in the criminal law [footnote: Australia, House of Representatives, Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 1 March 1995 at 1331]. One does not often encounter a more striking illustration of the vanity of human wishes. That is because very many parts of the Code, including the parts debated in this appeal, are inconsistent with those ideals. They represent a significant regression from the condition of Commonwealth, State and Territory criminal law as it was before 1995. That criminal litigation under the Code is conducted with any semblance of ordered justice is a tribute to the Australian legal profession, not to the Commonwealth legislature."
So, legislatures, sharpen your Act(s). Ho ho.