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Grieve for the dead but problem goes much deeper

IMAGINE the anguish being suffered by the family of Daniel Christie. They made the heart-wrenching decision to turn off the 18-year-old’s life support system last Saturday – 11 days after he was king-hit in Kings Cross on New Year’s Eve.

Imagine the pain of Daniel’s family and friends as they bury him today. Empathise. But don’t get blindsided by it.

Calls for legislation to impose harsher penalties for “one-punch offenders” are a knee-jerk reaction. They miss the point.

And that point is, Daniel's death is just the very tip of the iceberg that represents the violence on our streets. If we are to reduce the number of deaths like Daniel's, we need to tackle the wider, bigger problem.

That wider problem is the mammoth number of assaults that take place every single day across the country - particularly on Friday and Saturday nights.

By tackling assaults and not just deaths, we will be solving the terrible problem - horrific injuries caused by assaults - while also seeing fewer deaths.

Don't get me wrong; Daniel's death is a tragedy. And it shouldn't be ignored. It will have affected a huge number of people. Not just his family and friends but also those who didn't know him well. His family spoke about his death having "torn a hole in the wider community in which he was involved". Think of the impact on all the people who knew Daniel.

If only Daniel's case was an isolated incident. But we know it's not. Remember Thomas Kelly - king-hit in Sydney's Kings Cross in 2012. Or Daniel Cassai - killed in Rye just over a year ago.

In the past six years, there have been at least 15 deaths nationally caused by "one punch".

NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell has spoken about "one-punch" legislation. Essentially, the law would result in increasing the chances of heavy penalties for those responsible for a "one-punch" death.

While I don't oppose that, we shouldn't for a second think that such legislation is the answer. It absolutely isn't.

I doubt any of the 15 one-punch deaths involved an offender who thought his punch would kill. So providing heavy penalties in one-punch death cases is unlikely to deter anyone.

Instead, we need to cast the net wider and target all assaults. We should aim to stop them as every punch is a potential one-punch death. Because, of course, the number of assaults is far greater than the number of deaths.

So as much as we should try in every way to reduce one-punch deaths, we should do so by trying to stop the injuries that come from assaults. Do that and not only do we stop the deaths, we stop the cause of 20 per cent of brain injuries to people aged 15-25. We should not forget the significant number of victims who suffer ongoing disability following an assault. That may include ongoing physical ailments, cognitive difficulties like memory and concentration problems, or behavioural changes limiting one's ability to return to work/study or reintegrate socially into the community.

According to Victoria Police statistics, last year there were more than 46,000 assaults recorded in the state. And of course that's probably a conservative figure, given that so many assaults aren't reported to police.

Step Back Think is an organisation formed in the wake of the horrific injuries sustained by James Macready-Bryan in 2006.

James - or MB as he's known to his mates - was assaulted in the CBD on his 20th birthday. A single punch knocked him down and his head smashed against the pavement. That resulted in catastrophic brain damage from which he will never recover. MB remains in a vegetative state, stuck permanently in a wheelchair, and has limited ability to communicate with his loved ones. In the years since, countless more young men have sustained similar injuries from assaults - quite apart from those mentioned above who lost their lives.

Step Back Think's mission is to educate people on the consequences of a single punch. The hope is that increased awareness will mean people will think twice about throwing a punch, leading to fewer instances of derailed lives or tragic deaths.

Let's put it this way: when someone throws a punch, they know they're liable for the penalty that comes with that punch. But most likely they don't think they're throwing a punch that may kill, so they won't think about the penalties for that. So, while increasing penalties for all assaults will have something of an effect, penalties for one-punch deaths alone are unlikely to be successful.

So increase penalties for all assaults, but don't forget that we must have more education and, of course, build awareness of the root cause of violence. But that's another debate for another day.

Justin Quill is a Director of Kelly Hazell Quill Lawyers and a board member of Step Back Think

SOURCE:  Herald Sun, January 16 2014 <http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/opinion/grieve-for-the-dead-but-problem-goes-much-deeper/story-fni0ffsx-1226803556402>