Why knee-jerk politics for Julian Knight cuts across the rule of law

As the community contemplates the Victorian Government’s decision to, as Premier Denis Napthine puts it, have the Hoddle Street murderer Julian Knight “rot in jail”, it is worth looking at similar cases.

Back in 1990 the Government wanted to keep Gary David, a seriously mentally ill offender, in jail. It succeeded and three years later he killed himself. He was 38 and had been in institutions for all but five years of his life. In the laws framed especially for David there was an annual review by the Supreme Court. That small concession by the government created a modest safeguard which is not apparent in the proposed Knight law.

Based on the Victorian legislation, the New South Wales Parliament then passed a law to try to enforce preventative detention against Gregory Wayne Kable, but in 1996 this was overturned by the High Court as unconstitutional. He had been serving five years for the manslaughter of his wife.

Now, despite that High Court judgment, the Napthine Government wants Knight put away almost indefinitely, pre-empting any proper consideration of his case by the Adult Parole Board – the executive body tasked with that very function.

The public is entitled to deplore Julian Knight, who in addition to the Hoddle Street massacre when aged 19, is said to have been a troublesome, extremely difficult prisoner who recently allegedly attacked another inmate. This makes it unlikely that he would be granted parole. 

But Liberty Victoria believes that wider public consultation is required before the rule of law is overturned in pursuit of short term political posturing. Knight was sentenced by the Supreme Court of Victoria by a very experienced judge and the Office of Public Prosecutions determined not to appeal against that sentence. He is entitled to his case being considered on its merits by the Adult Parole Board. 

If an exception is made by the government for Knight, then this can easily lead to further exceptions in the future when it is politically expedient. That sets a dangerous precedent. 

The Adult Parole Board is the proper body to decide whether Knight qualifies for parole or must remain in prison serving his life sentence. 

A better approach would be to equip the Board with adequate resources so that it can undertake careful assessments before releasing high risk offenders. 

There is irony in the government, instead of properly resourcing the Board despite the findings of the Callinan review, deciding to target a person found to be a vexatious litigant, using retrospective legislation aimed specifically at that individual. That will invariably be challenged through the Courts at great public expense. Surely the costs of that litigation would be better spent properly funding the Board so that it can properly assess the risk of offenders, including ensuring that it has access to the full history of such offenders. Equally, the funds would be better spent making sure that Victoria Police had adequate resources to determine whether there are warrants for the arrest of alleged offenders. That would mean better community protection.

Premier Napthine says the Adult Parole Board had stated that Knight would not be released in the foreseeable future. Minister O’Donohue says Knight shows no remorse and remains and one of the worst prisoners in the system. He is held in maximum security. All of this suggests that there is no pressing need for emergency legislation disrupting the critical separation of powers between the government and the courts which will only succeed in more public expense while that legislation is challenged. 

The community is entitled to proper protection through an adequately resourced Adult Parole Board. It should not foot the bill of knee-jerk legislation looking to control the media cycle in an election year.

For further comment or interviews please contact Liberty Victoria President, Jane Dixon SC on or Michael Stanton, Vice President.