Intellectually disabled Inverell man Charlie Forster has consorting conviction set aside

Charlie Maxwell Forster's sister, Macy, and mother Tricia Harrison outside Armidale District Court in 2015. Photo: The Armidale Express
Charlie Maxwell Forster's sister, Macy, and mother Tricia Harrison outside Armidale District Court in 2015. Photo: The Armidale Express

An intellectually disabled young man who was the first person to be jailed under controversial consorting laws has had his conviction set aside by the NSW Supreme Court.

Charlie Maxwell Forster, from Inverell, in northern NSW, was charged in 2012 with consorting while "hanging out" with friends near a couple of hotels.

After teaming up with two bikies in an unsuccessful challenge to the laws in the High Court, Mr Forster was convicted of habitually consorting with convicted offenders.

At Inverell Local Court in April 2015, magistrate Michael O'Brien sentenced Mr Forster to 12 months' jail with a non-parole period of nine months.

Mr Forster had pleaded not guilty, his lawyer arguing there was a difference between a deliberate meeting and a "chance encounter".

He launched legal action in the Supreme Court asking for the magistrate's decision to be set aside.

On Friday, Justice Lucy McCallum set aside the conviction, finding the evidence was not capable of establishing the offence.

She said the "essence of consorting is the intentional seeking of something in the nature of companionship, not mere conversation".

Further, she said the court should "undertake an evaluative??? judgment as to whether the conduct proved amounted to 'habitual' consorting" before finding a person guilty.

She declined to send the matter back to the Local Court, meaning the case is over.

The consorting legislation was introduced by the NSW government in response to a wave of gun violence involving bikies and organised crime groups and made it an offence for anyone to associate repeatedly with convicted criminals.

Mr Forster, then 21, teamed up with two members of the Nomads outlaw motorcycle gang, Sleiman Tajjour??? and Justin Hawthorne, to run a High Court challenge on the grounds the laws infringed the implied right to freedom of association and freedom of political communication in the constitution.

In October 2014, the High Court found the laws were valid.

In finding Mr Forster guilty, Mr O'Brien said he was satisfied Mr Forster's meeting with Damien Case in May 2012 was "not a casual encounter" but both men "found an intention to seek the company of the other".

Mr O'Brien found the same for Mr Forster's interactions with Jack Hayes and Eli Morris - each of whom had been convicted of a serious offence - outside hotels in April 2012.

Mr Forster claimed Mr O'Brien was wrong when he found that, although the meetings could have begun as chance encounters, Mr Forster at some point formed an intention to seek out the company of Case, Hayes and Morris, and was therefore guilty of consorting.

Consorting laws were originally introduced in 1929 to combat the notorious inner-city "razor gangs" of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh in Darlinghurst, but had fallen into disuse before they were revived in 2012.

*This story first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.


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