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Turnbull govt to restrict legal assistance to overseas offences
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Turnbull govt to restrict legal assistance to overseas offences

Parliament

The federal government has revealed it will limit legal assistance to only those Australians overseas facing the death penalty, as part of an overhaul of the Serious Overseas Criminal Matters Scheme. 

Yesterday, Attorney-General Christian Porter announced the Scheme will only provide funding for cases where the accused faces the death penalty, as part of a strategy to save taxpayer money.

"One of the ways the Government currently provides assistance to Australians is through the SOCMS. At present, the Scheme applies to those facing either a potential custodial sentence of at least 20 years or greater, or the death penalty," the A-G said in his announcement yesterday.

"Having considered the Scheme since becoming Attorney-General, I have decided that it is necessary to update the criteria for this taxpayer-funded support.

"I was concerned that, over time, the Scheme had failed to meet community standards and expectations, and the funding provided to Peter Scully highlighted recently, was a clear demonstration of that."

Mr Porter noted that as part of Australia's longstanding opposition to the death penalty, it is integral to maintain a level of legal assistance to those facing this sentence if convicted.

"At the same time, stricter criteria will also now apply to the Scheme. Firstly, consideration will be given to whether the person has previously been the subject of criminal proceedings in Australia or overseas and, if so, the gravity, nature and outcome of those proceedings," he said.

"The other additional factor will be the circumstances under which the accused departed Australia. Someone who fled Australia to avoid criminal proceedings in Australia would not qualify for assistance."

The A-G also outlined that the Government will maintain the ability to support Australians in non-death penalty cases, if it is considered appropriate.

"Legal assistance will still be available for other cases through the separate Special Circumstances Scheme, which has been amended to specifically contemplate Australians facing prosecution for criminal offences overseas," he explained.

"There will be circumstances where an Australian overseas is facing serious charges that don't attract the death penalty but where they should still have access to funds to provide a proper legal defence. However, it will depend on the individual circumstances of the case, and whether the provision of taxpayer funds is appropriate.

"This could apply where the accused is a minor or suffers from an intellectual difficulty, but ultimately this will turn on the particulars of a case."

A statement from the A-G's office noted that the stricter criteria will also be applied to the Special Circumstances Scheme, and "the Attorney-General, rather than his Department, will become the decision-maker for overseas criminal matters under both schemes".

The changes will apply from this week, the statement noted, with the Serious Overseas Criminal Matters Scheme being renamed the Scheme for Overseas Criminal Matters involving the Death Penalty. The changes are expected to save $1.6 million over four years.

"The changes I am announcing achieve a balance between assisting Australians arrested overseas for serious criminal matters and ensuring that Australian taxpayer funds are spent appropriately and in a manner that is consistent with community expectations," Mr Porter concluded.

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