The Loose Cannon - Edwards Inquest Coroners Court Findings

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Simon Munslow answers your questions on firearms law.

 

If like me you have been eagerly awaited the finding in the Edwards inquest, it is now available on the NSW Coroner’s website under ‘Decisions’.

 

The 272-page decision is quite a shocking read.

 

The facts in brief are as follows:

 

  • John Edwards(‘JE’) was about 30 years older than his Russian bride Olga, when she migrated from Russia. Olga Edwards was attractive and intelligent, studied law and became a solicitor. They had two children, Jack and Jennifer, before the marriage failed.

 

  • JE had served as a Commando until 1989.

 

  • JE had a history of domestic violence. Four ex-partners and one of JE’s children had AVO’s against him. His violent nature soon became apparent in his treatment of Olga and the Children.

 

  • JE had a firearms licence.

 

  • Edwards became ill with Depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

 

  • He stalked his wife and children.

 

  • Two-gun clubs in Sydney questioned his suitability.

 

  • He murdered his two children at the home of his former wife, before returning to his own home and committing suicide.

 

  • The distress of these events led to Olga Edwards subsequently committing suicide.

 

Significant management and training deficiencies in the Registry were highlighted, and indeed, it is these structural management deficiencies that lie at the core of the failure by the Registry to consider a failure by JE to declare an AVO on a P650 form, but also a failure to review the COPS database.

 

JE had visited Hornsby Police and pre-empted their approach by advising them that he was going through a family law matter with his wife and that she may make complaints about him (para 212). He insisted that this be documented in an apparent, and possibly successful attempt at influencing the way Police treated Olga Edwards and controlling the narrative.

 

Like most lawyers, Olga Edwards was also assertive. This is significant, because many in society (including women) regard assertive behaviour by a woman as being aggression, and her behavior may have been at odds with that more typically seen in those seeking Police protection.

 

Notwithstanding the above, I confess to surprise that Police had not acted. AVO’s in NSW are doled out like confetti at a wedding. In such a situation where firearms are present, the shooter usually receives a visit from a large number of Police.

 

Interestingly, some years ago I had a discussion with a senior female solicitor in Sydney about a solicitor who had been a bride from Russia or Ukraine. There was a large age difference, stalking and her husband having access to firearms, and an unwillingness by Police to grant an AVO. I speculate that it is the same case.

 

We wondered if the stalker had a guardian angel somewhere in Police.

 

IF, and here I speculate, it was the same case, this view would be furthered by the presence of JE in 1 Commando. Historically I understand, a lot of its members are Police, and those of his vintage, who are still in Police would be expected to be high ranking.

 

I stress I am making no judgement here as I lack any evidence upon which to do so, but it would be fertile ground for investigation.

 

The Coroner has made a raft of recommendations. However, with all due respect to her Honour, I was disappointed that she seemed to operate under the belief that an AVO or denial of a firearms licence would have altered the outcome. Certainly, Edwards’s would have lost his registered firearms, but would the AVO have stopped him?

 

An AVO is merely a piece of paper which may have been issued, thereby making it easier for Police to arrest a person in the vicinity of a PINOP (A person in need of protection). It discourages low levels of behaviour such as stalking or intimidation by a law-abiding person, but it is not going to discourage someone with suicidal intent from murdering someone.

 

Denial of access to a registered firearm would also not achieve this. Particularly in this case. Even if he could not have procured a firearm from the illicit market, or else stolen one, as a former Commando, Edwards would have received training in unarmed combat and improvised munitions.

 

One would assume therefore that JE would have been quite capable of making an effective IED with the material found in the a typical kitchen or laundry cupboard.

 

Consequently, I am dubious that the outcome here would have been any different. John Edwards was an evil, controlling man, and evil people do evil things.

 

But from a licensing point of view, I find Registry behavior shocking, as this matter is not even a lineball decision. In the words of the Coroner ‘Had they adequately analysed the information readily available, they would’ve had no choice but to refuse his licence applications’.

 

Indeed, when one Officer of the Registry, BW, was asked to explain how the Registry could form a view that John was a F&PP to be granted a licence, her answer was ‘I am not able to. Sorry’ (492) for there was, in the case of John Edwards, a ‘very clear pattern of risk’ (507).

 

Most of the changes recommended by the Coroner have already been implemented and have already impacted shooters.

 

Police and Service people with mental health problems seem to be unfairly targeted. The coroner noticed the lack of consistency of language in describing mental health issues in the relevant question on the P650, an Application for a Permit and an Application for a Firearms Licence.

 

This lack of consistency is indicative of very sloppy policy work, which I suppose is not too unlike the poor policy work that has led to our gun laws.

 

The Coroner was critical of the current P650 model, as clubs cannot check answers to questions, and she felt it posed an extensive risk to public safety. So, expect significant changes there, with the current model being replaced by one involving Registry vetting.

 

How workable that would be is another question, particularly given that clubs operate with volunteer staff, and delays at the Registry are often horrendous.

 

Expect also a change regarding mandatory notification of refusal of memberships where an executive has concerns about a member.

 

Many of the recommendations of the Coroner involve tightening up dialogue between the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court and Police to ensure that due weight is put on Commonwealth Orders.

 

While sensible, this is a minor issue, as most areas of abuse generally involve State Apprehended Violence Orders.

 

The reason for this is that solicitors advise clients to see the Police and apply for a state AVO, because it is easier and often quicker to get, and as Police generally seek the order, it is a zero-cost option.

 

Mrs Edwards would only have gone to the trouble and cost of seeking an order from the Family Court or Federal Circuit Court because the NSW Police Force had failed her.

 

Further recommendations involve training, and a desire to tighten up the Registry. This was clearly necessary, however, with respects to her Honour, it is wrong to conclude that prior to Edwards related changes, Registry staff did not consider other than mandatory exclusion factors in reaching their decisions, for in my observation this often occurred.

 

It is this that makes the Edwards matter so incomprehensible.

 

The Firearms Act 1996 permits a person who has had an AVO issued against them, that has been revoked, to obtain a firearms licence (S11(5)). This occurs by virtue of the words ‘other than an order that has been revoked’. SI Bell testified that the Registry practice is not to issue licences where an order has been revoked because pressure may have been applied to the PINOP to withdraw the order. The Coroner agreed with him and suggested that the words be deleted to bring the Act into line with Police behaviour (Recommendation 9).

 

With respects to SI Bell and the Coroner, I would have thought that one of the most important of the matters that a Magistrate would take into account when considering whether to revoke an AVO. Invariably the PINOP would be placed into the witness box and be questioned. From experience, it is not hard to spot where pressure has been applied.

 

This point is very interesting.There used to be a provision relating to Apprehended Violence law, that arose because of the efforts of a former SSAA Official, and SF&F Party MP named Smith. While clumsily worded, it enabled an expired AVO to be considered to be in force for the purpose of considering it for firearms licence purposes. It ‘disappeared’ from the legislation in a Plain English rewrite of the Act, and its removal was not explained in the Explanatory Memorandum considered by Parliament.

 

There has long been speculation that its removal was no oversight.

 

Whilst SI Bell would not have been involved in its removal, I suspect he is not the only one in the Justice Department portfolio of that view.

 

Is this removal fair? I think not and here is why.

 

In the last stages of a marriage there may be an argument in the kitchen, and one party may brush against another. Alternatively, there might be a light push that horrifies both parties, the person who pushed the other feels bad about it, and both realise it is the end of the marriage. There never was, and never would be systemic violence.

 

The evidence of violence is also often fabricated, and when this is revealed, Police never prosecute a person for making a false AVO allegation.

 

Indeed, about 25% of AVO’s do not really involve real or systemic violence at all, with the AVO laws being used, not as a shield, but as a tactical weapon.

 

I would also add that in Victoria, s86 of the Firearms Act 1996 permits a person subject to afinal Intervention Order made in Victoria under the Personal Safety Intervention Orders Act 2010 or the Stalking Intervention Orders Act 2008 where the Court has notimposed conditions that have cancelled, suspended or revoked your firearm licence, permit orauthority to apply for to the Court for an order that they be permitted to hold a firearms licence. The Victorian Act also contains an exclusion period of 5 years (in accordance with the NFA) rather than the ten-year period in NSW.

 

Since the Coroner first became involved, the structure of the Registry has been transformed.

 

Registry decision making has, in anticipation of the Coroner’s findings been transformed, with most line management being replaced by uniformed senior Police. Staff members to whom I have spoken in private, have remarked that the culture is now unpleasant.

 

This is to some extent predictable, getting the culture right in an agency where one is seeking to mix public servants used to ‘industrial democracy’, with the more militaristic command structure of Police is always going to be difficult, and probably impossible when the organisation has been locked down drum tight, with audit staff occupying about 30% of the positions in the organisation.

 

I note I have commented previously on whether decision makers at the Registry are at an appropriate level for nuanced decision making. This was not mentioned in the decision and does not seem to have been remedied by Police, however it remains a major elephant in the room as far as Firearms Regulation in NSW is occurred.

 

Whilst training is now being given, a conversation with one amply qualified former employee left me convinced that there are uncomfortable gaps in the quality of legal training provided and many staff lack the skills necessary for nuanced decision making in any event.

 

Seeking to compensate for this by reliance on Audit and Legal is never going to work in the long term. Already delays are blowing out to an extreme degree, and simply advising people that they can proceed to NCAT after three weeks of waiting is not an acceptable way for the Registry to handle its statutory obligations.

 

There is much Iron in the maxim ‘justice delayed is justice denied’.

 

Police may be now congratulating themselves for having extracted the Raptors beak from the septic system following the wash up to the murder of Jack and Jennifer Edwards, and in that regard, they have done well, however, the problem posed by a dysfunctional Registry and unfair treatment of shooters in NSW remains.

 

 

 

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