The Turnbull Government will limit access to legal assistance under the Serious Overseas Criminal Matters Scheme (SOCMS) to only those Australians overseas facing the death penalty, as well as introducing additional stricter criteria for the Scheme.
Attorney-General, Christian Porter, announced the move today after reviewing the Scheme.
"It is important that where the circumstances warrant it, the Government is able to provide assistance to Australians overseas facing serious criminal charges," the Attorney-General said.
"One of the ways the Government currently provides assistance to Australians is through the SOCMS. At present, the Scheme applies to those facing either a potential custodial sentence of at least 20 years or greater, or the death penalty.
"Having considered the Scheme since becoming Attorney-General, I have decided that it is necessary to update the criteria for this taxpayer-funded support.
"I was concerned that, over time, the Scheme had failed to meet community standards and expectations, and the funding provided to Peter Scully highlighted recently, was a clear demonstration of that."
The Attorney-General said that in future the Scheme would only provide funding for cases where the accused faces the death penalty.
"As part of Australia's long-standing strong opposition to the death penalty, a position supported by successive governments, it is important that funding continues to be available for Australians overseas who are facing the death penalty if convicted," the Attorney-General said.
"At the same time, stricter criteria will also now apply to the Scheme. Firstly, consideration will be given to whether the person has previously been the subject of criminal proceedings in Australia or overseas and, if so, the gravity, nature and outcome of those proceedings.
"The other additional factor will be the circumstances under which the accused departed Australia. Someone who fled Australia to avoid criminal proceedings in Australia would not qualify for assistance."
The Attorney-General also made clear that the Government would maintain the ability to support Australians in non-death penalty cases, if it is considered appropriate in all the circumstances.
"Legal assistance will still be available for other cases through the separate Special Circumstances Scheme, which has been amended to specifically contemplate Australians facing prosecution for criminal offences overseas," the Attorney-General said.
"There will be circumstances where an Australian overseas is facing serious charges that don't attract the death penalty but where they should still have access to funds to provide a proper legal defence. However, it will depend on the individual circumstances of the case, and whether the provision of taxpayer funds is appropriate.
"This could apply where the accused is a minor or suffers from an intellectual difficulty, but ultimately this will turn on the particulars of a case."
The stricter criteria outlined above will also be applied to the Special Circumstances Scheme, and the Attorney-General, rather than his Department, will become the decision-maker for overseas criminal matters under both schemes.
The changes will apply from today with the Serious Overseas Criminal Matters Scheme being renamed the Scheme for Overseas Criminal Matters involving the Death Penalty.
"The changes I am announcing today achieve a balance between assisting Australians arrested overseas for serious criminal matters and ensuring that Australian taxpayer funds are spent appropriately and in a manner that is consistent with community expectations," the Attorney-General said.
As a consequence of these changes, the Government is expected to save $1.6 million over four years.