Can a Person Be Charged with a Criminal Offence That Has Since Been Repealed?

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The “Teacher’s Pet” story, involving the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Chris Dawson’s wife in 1982 and his sexual relationship with one of his high school pupils, has gripped Australia for decades. 

Now, the story may be coming to an end. 

This week, Chris Dawson was found guilty after a judge-alone trial held in the District Court of New South Wales of one count of ‘carnal knowledge’. 

What was the offence of ‘carnal knowledge’ In New South Wales? 

Carnal knowledge was a sexual offence contained in section 73 of the Crimes Act 1900 in New South Wales until it was repealed in 1986. The offence carried a maximum penalty of 8 years in prison.

The repealed section provided as follows:

“Whosoever, being a schoolmaster or other teacher, or a father, or step-father, unlawfully and carnally knows any girl of or above the age of 16 years, and under the age of 17 years, being his pupil, or daughter, or step-daughter”.

Carnal knowledge means to have sexual intercourse.

Repealed offences

The fact an offence is no longer in force under the law does not mean it cannot be brought for conduct which occurred when it had been in force.

To the contrary, the offence can indeed be brought and the matter can be prosecuted in the same way as if the offence was still valid.

By the same token, for offences that continue to exist with varied maximum penalties – whether those penalties have been increased or decreased – are prosecuted pursuant to the penalties that applied at the time the offence is alleged to have taken place.

So, for example, if an offence is alleged to have taken place at a time when the maximum penalty was five years in prison but the penalty has since been increased to 10 years in prison, the applicable penalty for the purpose of the prosecution will be five years.

Back to Chris Dawson’s case

The presiding judge in Mr Dawson’s case, her Honour judge Sarah Huggett, ultimately accepted the testimony of the complainant – who cannot be named for legal reasons, but was referred to as ‘’AB’.

In doing so, her Honour cited a number of pieces of circumstantial evidence which supported the allegations that the sexual relationship began when she was 16 and was Mr Dawson’s student. 

AB gave testimony that she engaged in sexual activities with Dawson in the back seat of his car, in his school office and in a pool. 

It was never in dispute that a sexual relationship did in fact occur between the pair. Rather, the dispute was regarding whether the first such incident occurred while AB was under the age of 16 years.

After the disappearance of Mr Dawson’s wife in 1982, he and AB moved to Queensland, married and had a daughter together. They eventually divorced. 

Concurrent versus consecutive sentences

Mr Dawson has not yet been sentenced over the carnal knowledge offence, but given it is separate to his murder conviction, he could have time added to the 18-year sentence he is already serving.

Adding time in this way is called serving a sentence ‘consecutively’ while sentences that run at the same time are said to be served ‘concurrently’. 

The Judge also has discretion to order the sentences to be served partially concurrently and partially consecutively.

Judge-alone trials

As stated, Mr Dawson was previously convicted of murder over the disappearance of his wife Lynette. 

That trial was also presided over by a judge-alone.

This form of trial – one which does not have a jury – was requested by Mr Dawson’s criminal defence lawyers due to the difficulties in securing an unbiased during, given its high-profile nature.

Indeed, the case has gripped Australians since it first hit headlines in the early 1980s and has been the subject of numerous magazine articles and other publications including a high-rating Apple podcast series which was pulled from the platform in 2018, around the time Mr Dawson was located by police and extradited from Queensland to face charges in New South Wales. 

Appeal likely 

Mr Dawson’s legal team has foreshadowed an appeal against his murder conviction. 

These appeals are heard in the state’s highest criminal court, which is the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, a division of the Supreme Court in which cases are heard by three judges.

Lynette’s body has never been found and over the years there have been two coronial inquests into her disappearance, both of which determined that Lynette was murdered by someone she knew.

Charges were not laid after either inquest as prosecutors believed that there was insufficient admissible evidence available to do so. 

In 2018, further police investigations led to charges finally being laid. 

Despite being found guilty of Lynette’s murder, Chris Dawson has always maintained his innocence. 

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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