Great! "Ethnic" law to be scrapped in Australia

No hope for Sharia now

The Howard Government has widened its plan to remove legal recognition of Aboriginal customary law in criminal sentencing to include the cultural beliefs of all ethnic minorities. The extension of the plan beyond Aboriginal tribal law is understood to have been triggered by concerns that a law directed only at indigenous offenders could be in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act. Federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock last night said no one convicted of a crime in Australia should be able to plead their cultural practices and beliefs as mitigating factors in their sentencing. "We are not a nation of tribes," he said. "There should be one law for all Australians. Our expectation is that when people come and settle in Australia they are under an obligation to accept the law and the principles that go with it."

The Government's move came after Northern Territory Opposition Leader Jodeen Carney asked Mr Ruddock last week to check if planned restrictions on Aboriginal customary law being used as a mitigating factor when sentencing violent offenders would breach the Racial Discrimination Act. Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough this week said he would put a proposal to scrap consideration of cultural law in serious crimes to state and territory governments at a national summit. He said customary law had been "used as a curtain that people are hiding behind". The minister's remarks followed a national outcry after a 55-year-old Aboriginal elder was sentenced to a month's jail for having anal sex with a 14-year-old girl promised to him as a wife.

Territory Chief Justice Brian Martin, who sentenced the man, admitted this week he had made a mistake by placing too much emphasis on the man's belief that under tribal law he had the right to teach the girl to obey him. Ms Carney urged the Government to change the Racial Discrimination Act if it considered restrictions on customary law would amount to a breach. Mr Ruddock is understood to have sought legal advice on the possibility of changing the Racial Discrimination Act, but his preference is to extend the exclusion to all minority groups in the community.

The scheme drew qualified support yesterday from Islamic civil rights leader Waleed Kadous but was condemned as impractical by the legal profession. "I don't think any member of the community should expect any special privileges because of their cultural background," said Mr Kadous, co-convenor of the Australian Muslim Civil Rights Advisory Network. "Speaking for the Muslim community, we understand we are not entitled to any special privileges in the courts - nor should we be," he said. Judges should always have some discretion to consider a person's circumstances "but our cultural background should have no major impact on how we are sentenced", Mr Kadous said.

However, Law Council of Australia president John North said the Government's plan was "totally impractical". "An important part of the sentencing process, apart from retribution and revenge, is to look carefully at the subjective features of each individual before the court," Mr North said. "Those characteristics may involve cultural or what can be termed customary law matters, and this has long been held by the High Court to be a proper exercise in the use of sentencing discretion. "To try and legislate across the board to remove this discretion would, in our view, prove impossible."

Mr Ruddock said Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough would be urging the states to change their sentencing laws to fall into line with the Government's plan. While he believed the plan would not cause a breach of the Racial Discrimination Act, he indicated that the commonwealth would be prepared to change federal laws - including the Racial Discrimination Act - to achieve its goal.



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