10 May 2024

Survivors call for legal reform of 'known flaw' that led to paedophile coach's resentencing

| Albert McKnight
Stephen Leonard Mitchell

Stephen Leonard Mitchell was originally sentenced to 13 years and five months’ jail with a nine-year non-parole period. Photo: Albert McKnight.

CONTENT WARNING: This article refers to child abuse.

Survivors abused by a paedophile rock climbing coach are calling for legal reform. They say a “known flaw” in the law will see him resentenced under a much lower maximum penalty than what he originally faced.

“It’s time that lawmakers stopped leaning on victims to iron out problems,” said Odette Visser, one of the women who survived Stephen Leonard Mitchell.

“We’ve identified it now, we can’t look the other way. It needs to be fixed, no more excuses.

“It might be too late in our case, but victims refuse to look the other way and let it happen again.”

Another of Mitchell’s survivors, Libby Hall, said the legal issue that led to his resentencing was a “known flaw”.

“It doesn’t need a review or an inquiry, it just needs law reform to happen,” she said.

Mitchell pleaded guilty to abusing the six girls between the mid-1990s and the late 2000s when they were aged between about 10 and 15 while he held various positions that involved working with children in Canberra.

Last year, the then-57-year-old was originally handed a 13-year jail sentence on convictions that included three counts of the persistent sexual abuse of a child. But he later successfully launched an appeal to be resentenced on these charges.

The judge who sentenced Mitchell had said it was a charge that carried a maximum penalty of 25 years’ jail with a statutory cap of 14 years.

But after investigating the issues around the appeal, ACT Acting Director of Public Prosecutions Anthony Williamson SC said it appeared the maximum penalty for these charges at the time of the offences was seven years’ jail.

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Ms Hall believed prosecutors “would have been aware of this quite some time ago”, while she also thought Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury appeared to be aware of it.

In a letter Ms Visser sent to ACT Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee, endorsed by three of Mitchell’s other survivors, she said prosecutors had negotiated plea deals with Mitchell by withdrawing and condensing several charges per victim in order for them to become the persistent sexual abuse charges.

“We accepted those plea deals on their advice that a 25-year maximum was in place,” she wrote.

“None of us would have willingly accepted any action that reduced the charges to a seven-year maximum sentence if we had known otherwise.”

She told Ms Lee she was concerned the result of the resentencing would mean “sex offenders will become empowered to also attempt to halve their sentences, or immediately walk free”.

Elizabeth Lee MLA.

Elizabeth Lee has been contacted by survivors of Stephen Mitchell. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

In a response to Region, Ms Lee said she had been told this issue was raised with the ACT Government in May 2022.

“There is significant concern and distress amongst the victim-survivors that there has been no communication about what the ACT Government did or did not do about it,” she said.

“There are some very complex legal issues in this with respect to retrospectivity, the separation of powers, and the interaction of the criminal law with our human rights legislation. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t look at all available options.

“If there is a sensible approach that the Attorney General is willing to put forward, we would be very open to supporting measures that would reduce further trauma to victim-survivors and make sure we foster public confidence in the justice system.”

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A Justice & Community Safety (JACS) Directorate spokesperson said Mitchell had appealed on the basis the judge who sentenced him used a method of sentence construction and legislative interpretation previously disallowed by the ACT Court of Appeal in a decision from 2022.

“It is not appropriate for the ACT Government to amend legislation to apply increased maximum penalties to historical conduct,” the spokesperson said.

“If any amendment were made to change the outcome in the Mitchell case, it would likely result in a further appeal as that outcome would be contrary to the common law and incompatible with the right to a fair trial under the Human Rights Act 2004.”

The spokesperson said Mr Rattenbury had instructed JACS to undertake further work to consider options for amendment and to consult with key justice stakeholders.

Mitchell, who is in custody, will be resentenced on 27 August.

Anyone impacted by sexual, domestic or family violence can contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Full Stop Australia on 1800 385 578. Local support services include the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre on 6247 2525, the Domestic Violence Crisis Service (DVCS) on 6280 0900, and Victim Support ACT on 1800 822 272 or 6205 2022. You can report a sexual assault by attending an ACT Policing station in person, calling 000 in an emergency or 131 444 for police assistance, or online if the sexual assault occurred more than six months ago.

If this reporting has raised mental health concerns for you, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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