Retired Sunshine Coast District Court Judge John Robertson has taken up a role as chair of the Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council.
Retired Sunshine Coast District Court Judge John Robertson has taken up a role as chair of the Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council. Contributed

This judge will oversee review into child killer punishments

COMMUNITY outcry over the sentence of a child killer has coincided with the final stages of a retired Sunshine Coast judge's review of the highly complex subject.

District Court judge John Robertson retired in May after 17 years presiding over cases at Maroochydore Court House.

But life outside of the legal profession didn't last long, with Mr Robertson accepting an invitation to chair the Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council a few weeks later.

His role gives him oversight of the council's wide range of work, including a review of sentencing for child homicide cases.

In-depth statistical analysis of murder and manslaughter convictions has been conducted for child deaths in Queensland between 2005 and 2017 as a part of the review.

A nine-year sentence handed down earlier this month to William Andrew O'Sullivan for the 2016 manslaughter of his 22-month-old stepson Mason Jet Lee brought immense community attention to suitability of punishment for the crime.

With time already served taken into account, O'Sullivan could be eligible for parole in less than four years.

Outcry over that prompted Attorney-General Yvette D'Ath on Thursday to lodge an appeal over what her lawyers will argue was a "manifestly inadequate" sentence.

Mr Robertson wouldn't comment on specific ongoing cases but said he hoped people would take the time to read the child homicide report after it was presented to Ms D'Ath at the end of next month.

"We are not the people that change the law but there is certainly a public perception that sentences are too low for this class of offending," Mr Robertson said.

"These are extremely difficult cases the judges are handling.

"We hope that our report, which is evidence based, will hopefully improve or benefit the community and perhaps give them a greater understanding about sentencing for child homicide."

He said a part of the council's charter was to educate the public about the importance of the process followed in imposing sentences.

"A judge doesn't have a free kick.

"You can't just go in there and do whatever you like or you feel that's right.

"It's governed by legislation; it's governed by the case law."

Key findings of the research that will be used to inform the council's report have already been published, showing it to be a complex issue.

Mr Robertson noted the average sentence for manslaughter when the victim was a child was less than when the victim was an adult.

"It's the manslaughter ones that are the focus of a lot of community concern because murder is mandatory life and they usually get a parole eligibility date... of 20 years.

Manslaughter sentences analysed in the council's review ranged from 1.5 years to 10 years.

"The thing about manslaughter, more than any other offence... is that it's the type of offence that involves the most variation between the circumstances of the offence and the offender.

"The least serious are the cases involving criminal negligence."

As an example, Mr Robertson referred to a case of a young mother who had left a four-month-old in a bath, went out to have a cigarette and the baby drowned.

He said cases ranged from that end of the spectrum to children who died at the hands of caregivers where there was sustained violence.

"You end up with this great range in penalties and I think that has probably affected the averaging."

He also noted the prevalence of female offenders in child manslaughter cases.

"Interestingly, our research has established that when you view the whole crime spectrum in manslaughter cases and indeed murder cases, (child homicides are) the only offences where women even come close to men as being the offenders.

"I think that's probably a product of the fact that most of the offenders are the 'caregivers' of the victim."

"Women are primarily the caregivers of children, particularly very young children."

He said the final report would go to the Attorney-General and then it would be a matter for the Parliament as to whether or not any law changes eventuated from it.

The report, now in its final draft stages, is due to be presented on October 31.