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Law Society calls out WA police minister's criticism of court ruling

Dechlan Brennan -

Lawyers have criticised the West Australian government's complaints regarding a magistrate's ruling involving a 10-year-old Indigenous child, labelling it "inappropriate" and undermining the public's confidence in the "administration of justice."

On Tuesday, Magistrate Michelle Ridley found the child, who cannot be named for legal reasons, didn't know that what he did was seriously or morally wrong when he led Kununurra police on a dangerous chase through residential streets, at one point narrowly avoiding a front-on collision with a police vehicle.

WA law states a child between the ages of 10 and 14 "is not criminally responsible for an act or omission, unless it is proved that at the time of doing the act or making the omission, he had capacity to know that he ought not to do the act or make the omission".

The ABC reported the state's Police Minister Paul Papalia expressed concern over the decision to acquit the child.

"I'm frustrated by the way it played out," Mr Papalia said.

"If anyone regardless of their age commits serious crimes there needs to be a consequence. That's very disappointing."

Premier Roger Cook was more circumspect, saying he didn't know what penalty would be appropriate for the 10-year-old.

The case has highlighted the WA government's handling of Youth Justice and state care. The child was not attending school at the time of the offence and had cycled through several families and homes.

"It does not speak to supervision and good moral guidance," Magistrate Ridley said.

On Friday, the WA Law Society of Western Australia released a statement, arguing that criticism of judicial officials and their decisions by the government was likely to "undermine the public's confidence in the administration of justice".

Law Society President, Ante Golem said the reporting suggests the magistrate "has in this matter, correctly applied the law, that is that the State must prove beyond reasonable doubt, that a child between 10 and 14 years, knew that their actions were seriously wrong, before criminal responsibility can be established".

"It is the responsibility of the prosecution, in this case, the police, to prove the child has capacity."

It is not the first time the WA government has fallen afoul of the judiciary. In 2021, President of the Children's Court, Hylton Quail, warned the government they risked being found in contempt of court if they continued to use lockdowns and Unit 18 at Casuarina, ignoring the Supreme Court judgement earlier that year, as well as orders made in the Children's Court.

"Insufficient regard"

In the case, Magistrate Ridley was critical of the police conduct during the arrest of the boy. She found they asked questions relating to the 10-year-old's mental capacity before advising him of his legal rights and before formally starting the interview.

Because of this, she said the interview would not be admitted as evidence - on public policy grounds - arguing it could have serious consequences if this practice was adopted by police for children aged 10-14.

"In this case the police had insufficient regard to their statutory obligations and a 'near enough is good enough" approach to the rights of the accused," Magistrate Ridley said, as reported by the ABC.

"As defence counsel submitted, it is against public policy for police to be able to trick children into answering questions about capacity and then use it against them, contrary to their rights."

The boy had initially been charged with over 30 offences relating to a 'crime spree' before most were dropped on the eve of the trial at the end of November. He had already been acquitted over an alleged involvement in a burglary in the aftermath of the car chase.

The Magistrate said that whilst the boy's answers to interview questions showed he knew right from wrong, she questioned his ability to completely grasp the overall severity of the actions.

"I am not satisfied he understands what he did in the offences is morally or seriously wrong, rather than just naughty and mischievous," she said.

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