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The One Punch Law – What is It, and How Does it Work?

The offence of “unlawful striking causing death” – more commonly known as the one punch law – was introduced in Queensland in 2014 to address a perceived gap in the current criminal law system when dealing with certain types of incident. This article discusses the essential elements of the one punch law, why the one punch law was introduced, its maximum penalties, and the available defences.

What is the One Punch Law?

The one punch law is that “A person who unlawfully strikes another person to the head or neck and causes the death of the other person is guilty of a crime” (section 314A of the Criminal Code).

So to bring the charge the police need to establish a few elements, being that:

  1. there was a “striking”;
  2. it was unlawful;
  3. it was to the head or neck; and
  4. it causes death.

(3) and (4) are fairly obvious and don’t need much further explanation. Be aware that “causing” can be either direct or indirect, so it covers both an immediate fatality (direct) and a fatality arising from a condition or event caused by the punch (indirect).

“Striking” has a broad meaning. It covers any application of force to another person using any part of your body, with or without a weapon or instrument of some kind.

A strike that falls within the description of the one punch section will be counted as “unlawful” unless it is authorised or justified or excused.

So, basically, if the event happens then it will likely be unlawful unless you find a positive reason why it isn’t.

The takeaway here is that if you strike someone in the head or neck and they die, the section is probably going to apply.

Why Was the One Punch Law Introduced?

The one punch laws were introduced in Queensland and around Australia after a string of incidents, often at night and involving alcohol, where a single blow to a victim’s head or neck resulted in death.

The challenge was that the existing laws were not necessarily well suited to dealing with such a situation in a way that satisfied community expectations of justice.

So, for example, it would be generally hard to establish that the striker intended to kill the victim, and so a murder charge was normally off the table as it requires the police to establish intent.

Similarly, the lesser charge of manslaughter in those situations would not always apply either. It still requires evidence to support a finding that the striker acted with reckless indifference to the outcome – something not always true, and not always able to be established.

However, with several events making headines between 2010 and 2014, the Government at the time was concerned to enact laws which both applied to incidents of “one punch” deaths, and to do so in a way that acted as a strong deterrent.

Thus, the one punch laws were passed.

What is the Penalty for a “One Punch” Charge?

The maximum penalty for unlawful striking causing death is life imprisonment.

Beyond that, there is also a requirement that if the Court gives a prison sentence, then the Court must also order that the accused actually serves 80% of the term, or 15 years in prison – whichever is shorter. This requirement can only be avoided in certain limited circumstances.

This then prevents those found guilty from applying for early release before those minimum periods have elapsed. It also prevents the Court from providing shorter non-parole periods.

As you can see , the penalties reflect the “strong deterrent” that Government was attempting to create. This, together with the broad application of the section, results in some believing the laws are too harsh.

Despite that opposition, the one punch laws have survived and remain in force today.

What Defences are Available if you are Charged under the One Punch Law?

Criminal lawyers will check first whether the charge fits the events that occurred. Did you actually strike them? Was it really in the head or neck?

There is also a specific defence available here for those involved in sports. It says that you aren’t criminally responsible if the offence occurs:

  1. as part of a socially acceptable function or activity; and
  2. was reasonable in the circumstances.

One example of this would be a boxing match where one of the participants sadly dies, but the striker did not engage in any conduct outside the normal rules of the game.

You might also be able to establish an argument for self-defence or defence of another, especially given how these incidents often occur.

There are, however, tight restrictions on what defences are available to one punch laws – again this is consistent with the parliamentary intention to create a strong deterrent.

Been Charged Under a One Punch Law?

As always your first step for such a serious charge should be to contact criminal lawyers.

We can then go through all of the relevant facts, identify any potential defences, and help you manage the charges from beginning to end.