New Northern Territory Legislative Attempt to Deal with Problem Drinkers

Last Thursday (17 August 2017) the Northern Territory Government passed the Alcohol Harm Reduction Bill 2017 which brings back the "Banned Drinker Register" (the BDR) a measure the NT Attorney General said: "is the government delivering on a key election commitment to Territorians to reduce alcohol related harm and make our community safer". The proposed legislation also repeals the Alcohol Mandatory Treatment Act and the Alcohol Protection Orders Act two pieces of legislation enacted under the former CLP Government which had been criticised as being “discriminatory” alcohol related laws and said, by human rights groups, to unfairly target Indigenous people.

The Objectives and Operation of the Legislation

The objects of the proposed legislation are to provide a framework for prohibitions relating to alcohol, with the enforcement of the prohibitions to be done through the BDR which is established as an identification system under section 31A of the Liquor Act (NT). 

The measures contained in the framework are intended to reduce the misuse of alcohol and resulting harm by placing adults on the BDR through orders prohibiting purchase, possession or consumption of alcohol and preventing the purchase of takeaway alcohol by persons subject to the prohibitions. 

Takeaway alcohol is identified by the NT Government as constituting the majority of alcohol purchased in the Northern Territory. The proposed legislation  is intended to reduce the supply of alcohol to persons misusing alcohol who are subject to "banned drinker orders" (BDOs).

The former government's legislation, the Alcohol Mandatory Treatment Act and Alcohol Protection Orders Act, are repealed and other than enforcement through the BDR of the orders prohibiting purchase, possession or consumption of alcohol, there is to be no mandatory treatment imposed or offences arising from a breach of the prohibition by the banned drinker. 

Instead of the previous penalties, it will now be an offence for a person to supply a person on the BDR with alcohol and the legislation is intended to facilitate engagement with therapeutic health measures aimed at addressing the misuse of alcohol and harm arising from misuse. 

There will be a number of ways a person can find themselves on the BDR:

  • a person receives a police BDO;
  • court orders;
  • self-referral; or
  • referral from an authorised worker, the family, or a carer or guardian. 

The Previous Legislation and Reasons for Change

The former legislation introduced in 2013 provided for "alcohol prevention orders" (APOs) and "alcohol mandatory treatment orders" (AMTs), both of which were widely criticised because of the disproportionate number of Indigenous persons placed on them.

The ambit of APOs was much wider allowing police to issue an APO to a person charged with an offence subject to a jail sentence if they believed that person was affected by alcohol at the time. A person subject to an APO could be banned from possessing alcohol, going anywhere it was sold, including licensed venues and supermarkets - even the airport.

The key criticism of APO's was that the issuing of such orders served to criminalise alcoholism without seeking to address the causes of it. The opposition to APO's was such that there was a High Court challenge to them which has not yet concluded.

AMTs which allowed anyone picked up by police three times in a period of two months for being drunk, to be forced to undergo three months of treatment in detention were also widely criticised for targeting Indigenous persons and for lacking any evidence as to their effectiveness. In her second reading speech the NT Attorney General and Health Minister, told parliament that those subject to AMTs were “. . . 97% Indigenous, 50% aged 40 years or over, the majority were welfare recipients, unemployed and homelessness . . .”

Reaction and Comment

In the Parliament the independent MP Mr Gerry Wood protested the scrapping of the AMTs, and was reported as saying:

“I don’t think a lot of those people that we looked after under the alcohol mandatory treatment program will find their way to voluntarily looking for treatment.”

Mr Wood and four other members of the cross bench voted against the proposed legislation.

The Human Rights Law Centre is reported as welcoming the new legislation but also as urging the NT Government to go further and repeal the equally controversial "paperless arrest laws" and "protective custody laws" of the former government allowing police to arrest or detain someone on the belief they may commit a minor offence - laws already unsuccessfully challenged in the courts.

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Alcohol Harm Reduction Bill 2017 and supporting Second Reading Speech and Explanatory Papers as reported on the TimeBase LawOne Service.

Northern Territory repeals alcohol laws ‘discriminatory’ to Indigenous people (The Guardian)

NT Parliament passes banned drinker register 2.0 (ABC News)

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