When Sydney teenager Thomas Kelly was king-hit and killed last July in a senseless act of alcohol-fuelled violence, expectations were high that when Kieran Loveridge was found guilty of manslaughter he would feel the full weight of the law.

However, when Justice Stephen Campbell handed down a four-year jail sentence, the sentence sparked immediate outrage. Kelly’s parents said the sentence was “shocking” and an “absolute joke”, in what had become the latest alcohol-related tragedy to occur in Sydney’s Kings Cross.

Prompted by community outrage over the sentence, the NSW Attorney-General, Greg Smith, acted swiftly saying that the state government would introduce new “one-punch” laws that would carry a maximum penalty of 20 years behind bars.

“The new offence, and proposed penalty, will send the strongest message to violent and drunken thugs that assaulting people is not a rite of passage on a boozy night – your behaviour can have the most serious consequences and the community expects you to pay a heavy price for your actions.”

Following similar laws that exist in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, the Attorney-General, backed by Premier Barry O’Farrell, plans to introduce the new law to fill the gap where manslaughter is defined in such a way that usually means it will not apply to situations where a one-punch assault causes death. Flagging community support as a reason for creating the new laws, the Attorney-General said the laws will “provide clarity about the appropriate charge in ‘one-punch’ situations”.

However, President of the NSW Bar Association, Phillip Boulten SC, said the proposed 20-year maximum sentence is a reactive response based on emotions.

“The association is concerned about knee-jerk legislative responses when emotions are running high. Rather than simply proposing reactive changes to criminal law on the run, the government needs to look at liquor industry reform to strengthen restrictions on the availability of alcohol.”

Senior law lecturer at the University of Wollongong, Julia Quilter said the highly desired one-punch laws are unlikely to bring victims’ families the justice they crave. “One-punch laws have been seen as necessary in WA and NT, not because manslaughter is viewed as too light, but because manslaughter is not available. There is no defence of ‘accident’ in NSW, and manslaughter laws are defined differently in NSW, with a lower threshold.”

“Loveridge’s sentence was well below the maximum of 25 years. And this is the real controversy – the length of sentences for manslaughter. Why introduce a special one-punch law that has a maximum sentence lower than that for manslaughter?”

While Kieran Loveridge’s sentence was greeted with anger and disbelief, the decision by Justice Stephen Campbell to jail Loveridge for a minimum of four years mirrors similar manslaughter sentences across the state.

Earlier this year, Sydney man, Neil Madden, was charged with murder after dousing his friend in spirits and setting him on fire during an argument. Like Loveridge, Madden offered to plead guilty to manslaughter, thereby avoiding a murder charge. Justice Peter Hidden labelled the attack as “impulsive” and “the foolish act of a drunken man”. Neil Madden was also jailed for only four years.

While high profile crimes, similar to that of Loveridge’s, have often invited extensive media coverage and
intensified feelings of public outrage, the sentences handed down often do not reflect community expectations.

When Justice Elizabeth Fullerton sentenced Nathan Forrest to six years in prison for beating his then girlfriend’s four-year-old son to death in the bath, the fury at the sentence felt by the child’s family was similar to the betrayal felt by Thomas Kelly’s family over Loveridge’s punishment.

And around the same time that Loveridge killed Thomas Kelly with a single punch, Sydney man Chamanjot Singh was found guilty of manslaughter after he strangled and then slit his wife’s throat with a box-cutter. Justice Peter McClellan said Singh had “launched a ferocious attack” on his wife and subsequently sentenced him to six years in prison.

The maximum penalty for manslaughter in NSW is rarely reached and many offenders are jailed for less than 10 years. President of the Law Society of NSW, John Dobson, said the criminal justice system needs to have clearer guidelines for judgements relating to manslaugher cases and ‘king-hit’ crimes so that the outcome reflects community and legal expectations.

“We are suggesting that a guideline judgement is in the interest of the community and the benefit of the criminal justice system, and would clarify the uncertainty arising from the current debate,” he said.

“A responsive government and parliament is a reflection of the community’s reaction to these types of offences but there needs to be an outcome which can be applied in sentencing that takes account of the complexity of the matters involved.”

The director of public prosecutions, Llyod Babb SC has said he will appeal Loveridge’s four-year sentence, arguing that the penalty is manifestly inadequate.