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Requiem for Ronald Biggs, Great Train Robber, punk associate

There we were, sitting in a crowded room of a two-storey stone building dating back to when Bridgetown, Barbados, was a buccaneer and slaving settlement. Convicted Great Train Robber, escapee, Australian and Brazilian resident and Sex Pistols associate Ronald Biggs was sitting, handcuffed but smiling and happily relaxed in the dock, his theatrical local barrister resplendent in a tunic with red leg stripes, arguing his case.

That was April 1981. The air was soft, the water clear and, they say, the spliff was excellent.

Biggs had been recently kidnapped from Brazil by English bounty hunter mercenaries. Their boat had mechanical problems and they were rescued off Barbados, bringing into question the legal status of their involuntary shipmate.

I was a 25-year-old reporter, sent to cover the trial by a significant Australian newspaper, by way of inducement to leave El Salvador’s horrible and increasingly personalised civil war. Biggs was eminently sociable and ensured that he made eye contact with the media scrum on the benches. In the first stage of post-traumatic stress disorder, I nodded back.

Much of Bridgetown had been built by the British in the 17th century, after expelling the Spanish and Portuguese who had been there some 200 years previously. Apart from an airport, a requisite four star hotel and reggae, there was a sense that little had changed.

Biggs was by far the biggest thing that had happened to Barbados in a very long time. There were British tourists, jetting in and out. But it was otherwise "dreadlock holiday".

The British media was there, Biggs’ criminal notoriety having been given a further boost by his musically questionable appearance with remnant Sex Pistols on their video The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. For a person who could not legally work in Brazil, he had traded socially for years on his reputation as a famous criminal, receiving small gifts from visitors to attend his Rio barbecues.

Ronald Biggs was one of the Great Train Robbers, who hoisted an estimated 2.6 million pounds (a significant fortune now) from the Glasgow-to-London mail train in 1963. Though no one was killed, the train driver, Jack Mills, was beaten so severely his injuries ended his working life.

Of the 13 convicted participants in the crime, Biggs was a minor player. However, the trial itself was a media sensation, and Biggs gained notoriety by getting over the walls of Wandsworth Prison in 1965 and escaping with his wife, Charmian, and two sons to Brussels, Paris and then Australia.

Biggs arrived in Sydney in 1966 and soon moved to Glenelg, in Adelaide, where he was joined by his wife and sons. The following year, and with a new child, they moved to Melbourne.

In 1969, it had become increasingly obvious that the infamous Ronald Biggs was in Melbourne. He was all across the local news. So he fled by ship to Panama, and then to Brazil where, by fathering a Brazilian child, he fought off extradition appeals by the UK government.

While living in Rio, Biggs became a local celebrity. One could buy T-shirts and coffee cups with his image. The remnant Sex Pistols teamed up for a quick punk recording of No One Is Innocent and Belsen Was A Gas, which made #7 on the UK charts.

In 1981, Biggs was kidnapped by ex-UK soldiers. But Barbados, small, only independent since 1966 and without many legal structures, had no extradition treaty with the UK. Biggs was returned to Brazil.

Biggs dragged out the rest of his minor celebrity with other punk bands and generous tourists, but chose to return to the UK in 2001. He was immediately returned to prison, but sought release on the basis of poor health. He was released in 2009, having served a third of his original sentence.

Biggs' health continued to be poor, and he suffered a series of strokes. Free from prison, he said he just wanted to see Christmas of 2009.

Ronald Biggs, 84, has fallen just short of seeing Christmas 2013.

Disability funding is no charity - it's an investment

Treasurer Joe Hockey warned on Tuesday of a "massive blowout" in the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) if the system wasn't made more efficient. This follows subtle re-positioning of the government's stance on the NDIS since the election.

Tony Abbott referred to the scheme as a “trial” rather than a “launch” after the recent COAG meetings. And back in November a key adviser to the government, the head of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council Mr Maurice Newman, identified the NDIS as a “worthy cause”, but one which it was “reckless” to support in times of economic difficulty.

The “worthy cause” part of his speech is patronising, offensive and anachronistic; the “reckless” part is ill-informed and patently incorrect.

Ryanair, "It's your fault"

If you've ever travelled Ryanair in the UK or Europe, you'll understand why their unofficial motto is, "It's your fault".

It seems that having created a market for budget travellers, with no service, let alone no frills, CEO Micheal O'Leary, has been forced by market pressures to ease up on the no frills, and start to offer at least some elements of what could be termed the core offering of an airline. This may or may not mean the cessation of sales of lottery tickets on flights.

Huge numbers of travellers have travelled with Ryanair since its inception, and while complaining about it, have travelled in numbers large enough to keep it relatively sucessful (until now). 

Provocation Law Change in NSW could be lethal

This article was first published on The Sydney Morning Herald website on 22 October 2013. 

The O'Farrell government must reconsider their recommendation to retain a restricted version of the controversial partial defence of provocation.

The government has released a draft exposure bill recommending reform of a partial defence that has long attracted criticism and community concern. Under the proposed reform, the defence will be significantly restricted and will be renamed the "partial defence of extreme provocation".

Why England must abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder

An article published this week in the latest issue of Criminology and Criminal Justice reveals judicial and legal practitioner support for the abolition of the mandatory life sentence in the English criminal justice system. This blog post provides an overview of the research findings, access the full article here

Abolishing defensive homicide will benefit female victims and offenders

This article was first published at The Conversation on 4th October 2013

The Victorian Department of Justice has released its long-awaited review into the operation of the controversial offence of defensive homicide. The Consultation Paper proposes the offence's abolition on the basis that it is "inherently complex", "has no clear benefit" for women who kill in the context of family violence and has been "inappropriately" used by men who kill. 

The 'jealous man's' defence lives on in the English criminal courts

This month the Home Secretary Theresa May MP announced a major review in England and Wales of how police respond to domestic violence. The much-needed review comes in the wake of several high profile cases of women killed by former male partners with a recorded history of violence against women. These cases, including the deaths of Clare Wood and Maria Stubbings, have rightly led to community concern as to why victims of domestic violence are not better responded to, and protected, by the police.

Taking a stand against family violence must occur in the courts

Last month the Victorian Premier Denis Napthine, Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Ken Lay, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle and AFL chief Andrew Demetriou came together to encourage the Victorian community to ‘take a stand’ against family violence. Part of a family violence campaign, the ‘Take a Stand’ initiative focuses on reducing family violence through increased awareness and by encouraging members of the community to take responsibility for preventing and reporting incidents of family violence.

In urging the community to take a stand against family violence and to end the veil of silence that often surrounds this type of victimisation, it is important that a clear message on the unacceptability of family violence is sent from the highest levels of our criminal justice system. The courts and members of the judiciary can play a key role in denouncing the use of violence within the home and ensuring that a central message is sent to the community that domestic violence will not tolerated and will not be excused by our justice system.

Why South Australia must abolish the partial defence of provocation

Provocation is a partial defence to murder, which has attracted controversy and critique in every Australian criminal justice system except South Australia … until now.

Courtesy of concerns surrounding the ‘gay panic’ defence, South Australia has joined the provocation debate and has already begun to take steps to minimising the application of this controversial law. 

Provocation is a partial defence to murder which where successfully raised reduces what would otherwise be murder to manslaughter. A reduction in culpability that has a significant impact in sentencing. It is based on the premise that a degree understanding should be afforded to those who lose their self-control and perpetrate lethal violence in response to provocative conduct on the part of the victim, or a third party.

Can Australian LNG projects stay competitive?

In less than a year, the Australian LNG landscape has gone from a feeling of euphoria to one of increasing negativity and pessimism. There is no doubt that the pendulum of sentiment tends to overshoot both extremes – the scale of the exuberance of 2010-2012 was, in hindsight, unjustified and unprecedented in the global LNG arena. Similarly, the pervasive pessimism today may be self-destructive if left unchecked. However, I will argue that some degree of caution is the prudent strategy when facing increasing uncertainty, and may be better for the long term competitiveness of the Australian LNG industry.

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