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Schoolies and the law: What you need to know

Opinion

Young people and their parents need a basic understanding of the law – particularly around alcohol – to give Schoolies the best chance of partying safely, writes legal commentator Morry Bailes.

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The end of the school year is upon us and with it comes a rite of passage for our Year 12 students: “Schoolies” celebrations.

In South Australia, Victor Harbor is the epicentre of Schoolies. More than 10,000 young people are expected to descend on the coastal town for a week of partying – turning the page from childhood to adulthood.

It is fair cause for celebration, but good times can turn bad pretty quickly when a large number of young people are together, some using alcohol and drugs. The risk of derailing adult lives before they have even begun is real.

Parents and their children must think about the law as they prepare for this weekend and beyond.

Many of the students concerned will, in the eyes of the law, have reached adulthood. This means that for them, in a legal sense, the game has changed and the idea of adult responsibility is now reality.

The first issue is the supply of alcohol to a minor – someone under 18 years. This can be a parent supplying their own child or their child’s friends, or it can be from an adult Schoolie supplying their Schoolie friend who is a minor.

The law in South Australia is a somewhat contradictory. It is lawful for an adult to supply alcohol to a minor when at home, but it is an offence to supply it in any public place – for instance, at a pub.

Recent amendments to the Liquor Licensing Act mean if liquor is supplied to a minor at home, proper and adequate supervision by the adult is required. It cannot be a “hands-off” approach.

With those amendments came a general lifting of fines, which are now hefty, including for the minor who, by requesting alcohol, also commits an offence.

And look out for dry areas, because it’s an offence for anyone to drink there. A good guide to these areas can be found here.

As to drugs – they are illegal. Penalties differ but it is a serious offence to supply another person, irrespective of age.

The Controlled Substances Act draws distinctions between different categories of drugs, the amount possessed and the intent of the possession (personal use or supply). Penalties can range from an expiation notice to criminal prosecution resulting in fines or imprisonment.

A criminal record can be devastating for a person’s prospects for success

Many Schoolies will have just turned 18, so the second point to consider is the fact that the way the law treats an alleged adult offender is very different to how it treats a minor.

Minors – or juveniles, as they are referred to in the law – appear before the Youth Court when charged with an offence, and this is very different to an adult criminal court.

Hearings in the Youth Court are private, the accused’s identity is suppressed, and representatives from the Department for Communities and Social Inclusion are present. It is a fairly supportive environment where the penalties are usually significantly different and softer than in an adult court. Custody, if ordered, is served in a youth facility, not jail.

Contrast that to an adult court where, unless suppression is required owing to the nature of the alleged offending or is granted for some other reason, proceedings are public and may be published by media. Penalties are adult penalties.  Perhaps most significantly, criminal convictions can be recorded and that is the beginning of an adult criminal record.

The impact of a criminal record is potentially life-long.  Visas for overseas travel are regularly refused, and it becomes even tougher to get a job in a competitive job market. A criminal record can be devastating for a person’s prospects for success.

The types of offences I am thinking of here, other than those relating to alcohol and drugs, are assaults, being drunk and disorderly, what we call vagrancy offences, and traffic offences such as drug and drink-driving. Of course the consequences become dramatically worse if someone is injured or killed as a result of an offence such as driving under the influence.

There is also the risk of sexual offences. Obviously, forcing a person to have sex is rape, a grave criminal offence that would ordinarily lead to a jail term. Touching someone intimately without consent may amount to indecent assault.

Consent is the central issue here, and when alcohol, drugs or both are at play, young people need to be careful and respectful.

It is important, also, to discuss the age of consent. Even a consensual sexual encounter can be unlawful if a child has not reached the age of consent, which in SA is 17 years old, or 18 if the other person is in a position of authority. There is a defence, however, when the parties are close to but not at the age of consent.

When discussing sexual offences, it’s important to address the dangers of “sexting” – that is, sending what amounts to a pornographic image by text. This can be an offence with the potential to place a young person on the child sex offence register.

Don’t let the first use of your name as an adult in an adult institution be the court orderly calling you into the dock

From 18 years of age a person becomes liable in civil law to pay damages if their actions cause loss and harm. Damages can still be awarded against a minor, but until they are 18 years they are unenforceable and unrecoverable. Criminal history and a whopping debt are not the ideal first steps into adulthood.

Police take little joy arresting someone at Schoolies, but inevitably it will happen. Intervening or assisting a friend being dealt with by police can quickly escalate to hindering a police member in the execution of his or her duty. This is a criminal offence – one that often happens when judgments are impaired by alcohol, drugs and misconceived loyalty.

That aside, police have discretion. There is clear policy intent at events like Schoolies to show restraint and, where possible, maintain law and order without being overbearing. Listening to police is likely a wise thing. Taking friends out of what might be an irrational stance fuelled by anger, alcohol or drugs may mean the difference between spending a night in custody facing criminal proceedings or just letting something go. Discretion is the better part of valour, as the expression goes.

The police also have leeway to use their discretion, so when a person is misbehaving and “breaching the peace”, they may, without arrest or charge, bundle them into the back of a paddy wagon and drive them home – a slightly ignominious end to Schoolies and perhaps an unexpected hello to Mum and Dad.

Schoolies week is a relatively recent phenomenon, but appears here to stay. It ends well for the vast majority but there are always a few cautionary tales. Both parents and children ought to have a basic understanding of the law, particularly around the supply of alcohol, to give revellers the best chance of partying safely.

Harm from a criminal act can be devastating to others, and for the young perpetrator, it can also change in a moment the direction of their life.

For Schoolies: don’t let the first use of your name as an adult in an adult institution be the court orderly calling you into the dock.

For parents: lead by example – understand the law and explain it to your children.

Here’s hoping this weekend is one of harmless fun!

Morry Bailes is the managing partner at Tindall Gask Bentley Lawyers, president-elect of the Law Council of Australia and is a past president of the Law Society of SA. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.

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