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Church terrorism stabbing: Your questions answered

Church terrorism stabbing: Your questions answered

What we know so far

During a live streamed sermon at the Assyrian Orthodox Church in Wakeley, a 16-year-old child has ambushed a Bishop, stabbing him multiple times. During the incident, a Priest at the Church was also stabbed and injured. As news about the attack spread, a crowd gathered outside the Church and in the surrounding streets, demanding vengeance. The riot continued for an extended period of time, and many people were injured including NSW Police Officers. The 16-year-old offender remained in the Church with Ambulance NSW Paramedics as it was unsafe to move him from the Church during the riot. Multiple Police vehicles were damaged, with some being damaged so significantly that they are not repairable. During the early hours of the morning, NSW Police Commissioner Webb declared the incident as an act of terrorism.

What is a terrorist act?

An act of terrorism in Australia is defined in the Criminal Code 1995 (Cth). To be considered an act of terrorism, the action must be motivated by advancing a religious, political or ideological cause. In this case, the actions of the 16-year-old were considered to be an act of terrorism as it was an action that caused serious physical harm to a person and that action was done with the intention of advancing a religious cause.

There was a terrorist act on Australian soil, what now?

Following the declaration of a terrorist attack, the Joint Counter Terrorism Team has now been assembled. The Joint Counter Terrorism Team includes the Australian Federal Police, NSW Police, Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the NSW Crime Commission. The Joint Counter Terrorism Team will investigate the incident, the offender, connections of the offender, the events leading up to the incident and whether there is an ongoing threat to the Australian community.

Greater Police powers have also been enacted following the declaration of a terrorist act. Under the Terrorism (Police Powers) Act 2002 (NSW), following a declaration by the Commissioner of Police, in conjunction with the Police Minister, additional Police powers are in force for a maximum period of 48 hours following the declaration.

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What powers do the Police have?

Under the Terrorism (Police Powers) Act 2002 (NSW), Police have additional and significant powers to obtain disclosure of a person’s identity, power to search person, power to search vehicles, power to enter and search premises, power to seize and detain things all without a warrant. These powers circumvent the usual requirement for NSW Police to obtain a search warrant. Further, anyone who obstructs or hinders an NSW Police Officer during the exercise of this power could be charged with an offence under the Terrorism (Police Powers) Act 2002 (NSW), punishable by a maximum penalty of imprisonment for 2 years and/or a fine of $11,000.

Are children treated differently under the law?

In NSW, any person under the age of 18 years is considered a child by the law. When children commit criminal offences, they can still be charged with an offence and face Court. Children between the ages of 14 to 18 are generally prosecuted in the Children’s Court of New South Wales. The penalties available to the Children’s Court are different to those available in adult Courts and considered less severe. The focus of the Children’s Court is prioritising rehabilitation and education rather than punishment.

As a result, a young person cannot be sent to an adult prison, and any term of detention will be served in a Juvenile Justice Centre. However, where children are charged with a serious indictable offence, the matter will not be heard in the Children’s Court and will instead be sent to the District or Supreme Court of NSW for the most serious offences. NSW Police have stated that they consider this offence to be an act of terrorism, which is punishable by imprisonment for life, and as a result it is expected that the matter will not be heard in the Children’s Court of NSW.

What about the people at the riot who posted footage to social media – can they also be charged and can police access people’s social media?

Under counter-terrorism laws, police may have the authority to access people’s social media accounts as part of their investigations for a maximum of two days in response to an attack or up to 14 days to prevent an attack, especially when there is suspicion of terrorist activity or threats. These laws often grant law enforcement agencies broad powers to gather information and intelligence to prevent or respond to terrorist acts. Further, under the expanded powers to stop vehicles, search premises and persons, anyone who has publicly posted footage of the riot on social media can expect to have their mobile phones seized and could face charges of advocating terrorism under the Criminal Code 1995 (Cth).

What is going to happen now?

At the time of writing, the offender is under Police guard in hospital and has not yet been charged with a criminal offence. Once charged, it is likely that the offender will be remanded in custody and refused Police bail. The offender will appear before the Children’s Court initially and would be entitled to make an application for bail. However, this is likely to be a difficult application. In response to concerns about youth crime, recent amendments to the Bail and Crimes Amendment Bill 2024 in New South Wales have made it tougher for youth offenders, particularly those aged 14 to 18, to secure bail.

These changes introduce additional hurdles for youths seeking bail for specific serious offenses, potentially affecting those facing repeat charges or already on bail. Additionally, the amendments include provisions targeting the dissemination of material on social media that glorifies criminal activities, reflecting the government’s efforts to crack down on youth crime. Considering the recent church stabbing incident involving an individual, the impact of these new laws becomes significant. The legal process for this individual will unfold according to the charges brought against him and the outcome of court proceedings.

However, with the tightening of bail laws, securing bail may prove more challenging, particularly for serious offenses like those associated with the stabbing incident. The individual may face difficulties in obtaining bail, especially considering that the offender was recently charged for similar offences, including possession of a prohibited weapon, armed with a weapon with an intention to commit an indictable offence, stalk and intimidation and damage to property. It is understood that the offender was placed on a good behaviour bond by the Children’s Court of NSW in January 2024.

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Lara Menon

Lara Menon joined the Coutts team in August 2018, working within our Criminal and Family Law teams from our Camden office. Her swift advancement from Paralegal, Law Graduate, Lawyer, Senior Lawyer and most recently, Senior Associate in February 2022, is a testament to her astute legal skills and commitment to client service excellence. In January 2024, Lara was promoted to the head of the Criminal Law department.

For further information please don’t hesitate to contact:

Lara Menon
Senior Associate
1300 268 887

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This blog is merely general and non-specific information on the subject matter and is not and should not be considered or relied on as legal advice. Coutts is not responsible for any cost, expense, loss or liability whatsoever to this blog, including all or any reliance on this blog or use or application of this blog by you.

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