Arrests Without Paperwork – Efficiency and Safety? Or Further Reducing Accountability and Personal Liberty?


Normally when police officers want to arrest a suspect, they are required to fill out the relevant paperwork and comply with certain regulations.

This is no longer the case in the Northern Territory, where laws have been introduced allowing police officers to arrest people who they suspect of committing a summary offence, and hold them in custody for up to four hours without charging them or filling out any paperwork.

The new laws have been implemented as a way to keep police officers away from their desks and give them more time to spend out on the streets.

According to the NT Government, the amount of paperwork that is involved in arresting a suspect acts as a deterrent to police from arresting a person and taking them to the watch house, and impacts the safety of the community.

This move has led to concerns from lawyers and civil rights groups that the laws could be misused and that Aboriginal people in particular may be disadvantaged as a result.

According to police, the new laws will provide them with a means to contain minor offenders and detain them temporarily to prevent them committing major offences before releasing them.

But the president of the NT Criminal Lawyer’s Association has described them as an attack on personal liberty, and has raised concerns that they could be open to abuse.

What do police have to do when they arrest someone?

Contrary to what many people believe, police officers can’t just go around arresting people whenever they feel like it.

According to the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (LEPRA) in NSW, police can only arrest someone without a warrant if they have a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed an offence or is about to, or for a number of other reasons stated in the legislation.

When police officers arrest a person, they need to fill out paperwork with the details of the arrest and their grounds for making an arrest.

Although this may take up time, it’s important that each arrest is documented.

Unless there is a risk to the safety of the person being arrested, arrests are generally made in situations where there is a genuine intention to later charge the person with an offence, and not just to keep a person off the streets for a few hours in case they might commit an offence at a later time.

Paperless arrests leave system open to abuse

These new laws in the NT do away with the need for police to fill out paperwork associated with making an arrest.

This makes it quicker for them to arrest people and also means that arrests may potentially not be documented, which could leave the system open for abuse.

Currently, the amount of paperwork that officers need to complete when arresting someone mean that if the person arrested complains in the future, or if there are any doubts as the grounds and circumstances surrounding their arrest, there is documentation available which can provide evidence as to the reasons and circumstances surround their arrest.

This can prove extremely useful in the event of an investigation or a serious incident while the arrested person is in custody.

Not documenting an arrest could lead to abuses of the system and little in the way of legal recourse for victims who may have been wrongly arrested or unfairly treated while in custody.

Aboriginal people most likely to be targeted

Another problem with this legislation in the NT is that the people who are most likely to be targeted are Aboriginal people who are already vulnerable.

North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency member Jonathon Hunyor stated his belief that the laws will impact Aboriginal people more because they are the people who most frequently come into contact with the police.

Arrest as a last resort?

According to LEPRA in NSW, arrest should always be a measure of last resort, and members of the public should only be arrested in circumstances where it wouldn’t be appropriate to issue a court attendance notice or a fine or warning.

By making it easier to arrest someone, it increases the chance that arrest will be the first option for police officers when it might be more appropriate to issue a member of the community with an on the spot fine or a court attendance notice.

Allowing police to arrest someone just because they feel like it creates a far higher chance the system will be abused and exploited than if it is something that police need to take seriously and which they can’t just do on a whim.

People who have been arrested under the new laws in the NT still have a number of options to make complaints including through internal investigations, the ombudsman or the courts.


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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Sydney's leading firm of criminal and traffic defence lawyers.
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