For the love of law

Associate Professor Julia Quilter shares her journey on contributing to a better law.

When it comes to the law, sometimes you just need to think outside the box.

Julia Quilter never fancied herself as a law person.

"I don't think I particularly liked studying law when I first started studying," she muses, sitting against a backdrop of law textbooks and papers.

"I always loved my English subjects, loved doing humanities type work. In fact, I absolutely hated studying law when I started my Arts Law degree. I ended up focusing more on my theory and English subjects and then went off to do a PhD in Critical and Cultural Theory."

Describing her journey into the field as "always a slightly fraught one, but in the end a very happy one", Julia has been positioned as a leading expert on criminal law and justice and currently holds the position of Associate Professor in UOW's School of Law.

"I graduated from my PhD and law degree within a month of each other, which I suppose is fairly unusual. I thought I may as well apply for some of those large corporate law firms, because that's what everybody seems to do - I didn't think any of them would want to take me anyway," she laughs.

"It turns out they did."

Julia spent the first 10 years of her legal career practising in criminal and constitutional law as a solicitor and barrister, spending just 12 months in the corporate world before moving into the public sector.

"I absolutely did not like working in corporate, it was an incredibly good workplace but it just wasn't for me."

Spending the next few years at the NSW State Crown Solicitor's Office and as the Special Counsel to the NSW Solicitor General and Crown Advocate, Julia appeared as junior counsel in constitutional and criminal law matters in the High Court, NSW Court of Appeal and NSW Court of Criminal Appeal. She was part of a team that looked at sentencing laws advising on new standard non-parole sentencing and was junior counsel in a number of guideline judgments.

"I had the most amazing opportunity to work with incredibly personable and smart people and it was a fascinating time to be in that environment," she reminisces.

Working at the cutting edge of law with some of the best legal minds in the country, Julia was exposed to every aspect of criminal law. She continued working at the Crown Solicitor's Office in a part-time capacity after the birth of her first child as well as doing some part-time teaching at the University of NSW, getting her hand back into the academic side of the law.

"I kind of fell into practice. I enjoyed it very much, but I always felt a bit limited by the law because you have to work within its parameters and I think I would prefer to think outside the law for other types of solutions," she says.

A move into politics for her husband, Labor MP Stephen Jones, led to a sea change and a posting at UOW, where Julia continued her work in the criminal justice field as a researcher and criminal law lecturer.

A knee-jerk reaction

Julia began to research in the area of alcohol-related violence following the death of Thomas Kelly in 2012 from a 'king-hit' by Kieran Loveridge in Sydney's Kings Cross.

"What interested me about this particular matter was how different the community and legal responses were to this tragic death."

"The responses of the media, community, police and the government after his death, were not your classic 'law and order' ones. Instead, there was a campaign to make a positive difference in relation to alcohol-related violence in order to prevent this type of tragedy re-occurring."

Julia began looking into this progressive populist movement, delving into the more positive and less punitive legal responses of the government. Her article on the responses to Kelly's death argues that we need to take populism more seriously, given the "undoubtedly populist, but far more nuanced, government response following Kelly's death than those more traditionally seen from state governments in the past".

As the case progressed to the sentencing of Loveridge, however, the discourse changed dramatically. The six-year sentence Loveridge received for Kelly's manslaughter was widely perceived to be too lenient, sparking outrage from the media and public. The government returned to a more traditional 'law and order' knee-jerk response, announcing a new one-punch law. Julia began exploring the appropriateness and effectiveness of such laws.

"The first jurisdiction to introduce a one-punch law was WA and my research into the operation of that law shows that sentences for such matters have been low, indeed lower than those for manslaughter in NSW," she claims in a 2013 article written for The Conversation.

"The real controversy in the Loveridge matter was the perceived leniency in sentence not the availability of offences. So, why introduce a special one-punch offence with a maximum penalty lower than that for manslaughter?"

In January 2014, following a further tragic death (of Daniel Christie on New Year's Even 2013) from another one-punch attack in Kings Cross, the NSW Parliament responded in classic law and order fashion enacting two new homicide offences: assault causing death and an aggravated version where the offender is intoxicated.

Julia has written extensively about the legal and operational problems with the NSW one-punch law. In October 2016 she gave a TedX talk entitled 'When is criminal law the answer?' which sheds light on the consequences of politically driven law, using the one-punch law as an example of why creating new offences should be a last resort, reserved for cases where there is a genuine gap.

Intoxication and the law

A direct result of her research into the one-punch laws, Julia became curious about the role of intoxication in the criminal law context and spearheaded a national project looking at criminal laws that attach significance to the concept of intoxication.

"In relation to the NSW aggravated assault causing death offence a person must be intoxicated at the time of committing the offence - yet the legislation doesn't provide a definition of intoxication. This is despite the fact that if you're found guilty of the offence you're exposed to a mandatory minimum sentence of eight years," she says.

"The implication is that if you get drunk, you become violent and you should be punished more seriously than if you did the same act stone cold sober."

One of Julia's gripes with this particular piece of legislation came in part from the role attributed to intoxication in other contexts.

"In the sexual assault context, under the law a complainant may not be able to consent to sexual intercourse if she's intoxicated, so alcohol is understood to make women passive but men aggressive and violent in these two different contexts. Then when you start looking at lots of other areas in the criminal law you begin to see all sorts of inconsistencies and problems about how we think intoxication effects people: does it make them more violent? Should they be held more responsible for their acts?" she says.

"And it gets more complicated because every time the word intoxication is used in the criminal law in NSW it means not only from alcohol but also from any other drug. And of course different drugs have different effects on the body and mind - ice is often known to be the aggressive drug - but there's a whole series of other drugs that may depress cognitive and physical functions and may make some people calmer, more passive but they're all treated in the same way by the criminal law."

"So it seems to me we should have a better and more detailed look at our laws that attach significance to intoxication and think about what they stand for? And whether in fact it's actually an accurate reflection of what the science can tell us about the effects of different drugs and alcohol on cognitive and physical functions."

In 2016, Julia was invited to make a submission and give evidence to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Reference Committee Inquiry regarding the need for a nationally consistent approach to alcohol-fuelled violence. Her article 'Populism and criminal justice policy: An Australian case study of non-punitive responses to alcohol-related violence' won the 2016 Allen Austin Bartholomew Award for the best article published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology.

From research to practice and beyond

A mother of two, wife to a politician, Associate Professor and widely respected criminal justice expert, Julia's career has seen her travel from researcher, to legal practice, and back again.

"I don't know that my practising background shaped the way that I approach research because I had been a researcher before I had gone into practice, but probably if the truth was told I was always at heart dying to go back to do some more intense research and thinking because that's what I really enjoy," she says.

In her time as a legal academic and teacher, Julia has received national recognition for teaching excellence. She received an Office for Learning and Teaching Citation in 2015 as part of the Law School's First Year Teaching Team which also received the 2013 Vice-Chancellor's Outstanding Contribution to Teaching and Learning Award. In 2016 Julia was named as one of UOW's Women of Impact for her dedication and contribution to the field of law.

"When I've got an idea and I'm thinking about something I can't wait to get back to it. You wake up in the middle of the night and you think, 'ah that's how that connects', so you get up and you write some incomprehensible notes then you can't go back to sleep, then you're awake again trying to figure out this thought and trying to work out the connections between things," she says.

"While there might be some sleepless nights, I find it exciting and love doing that. I can't imagine being in a job where I didn't feel passionate about what I do."

For Julia, a genuine love for reading, thinking, and finding solutions won't see her leaving research anytime soon.

"I think in research maybe there does come a point where you think, maybe I don’t have any projects left in me. I don’t know, maybe it happens." 

Photos: Paul Jones