27 Sep 2016

Rugby player avoids conviction over assault charge

1:45 pm on 27 September 2016

A victim of a violent assault which involved a Wellington Lions rugby player is calling for him to be dropped from the team.

Wellington Lions player Losi Filipo

Wellington Lions player Losi Filipo Photo: Wellington Lions

Losi Filipo was last month discharged without conviction over charges of assaulting four people, including two women. He was a 17-year-old school student at the time of the incident in central Wellington last October.

Greg Morgan was one of the victims. He was punched and his head was stomped on repeatedly.

The attack has left him unable to work full-time because of chronic fatigue and migraines, and unable to play rugby.

He told Morning Report he was angry Mr Filipo had been discharged without conviction.

The Wellington rugby team needed to do the right thing and drop him after the "nasty" attack, he said.

"What are you trying to do when a guy is knocked out and you're stomping on his head, the only thing that I can think of is that you're trying to kill him, you know?"

After months of rehabilitation, Mr Morgan said he had seen another year added to his work apprenticeship.

He said he felt shut out of the process and had not been allowed to go to any of the court hearings.

"The police have been somewhat helpful, but it has been a fight, all the way through, to get to this stage."

Mr Morgan said he felt Mr Filipo had only avoided a conviction because of his rugby career.

"If he was in the hockey team or something else, I don't think he would have got off so easily, but that's just my opinion on that."

But the Rugby Players' Association said Mr Filipo was being singled out because he was a rugby player.

Chief executive Rob Nichol, told Morning Report he did not support the call for the team to drop Mr Filipo.

Mr Nichol said the judge made a call, deciding Filipo deserved an opportunity.

He said it was a societal - not just a rugby - problem.

"Whether we like it or not, we have a society where we have people out at three o'clock in the morning in this particular instance, engaging in violence, and maybe we've got to start asking ourselves how do we stop this in the first place, because that's the problem. In this instance, it might be a rugby player, but this weekend it could be another person, he might be a basketballer, scholar, badmington player or musician."

A lawyer has also backed the decision not to convict Mr Filipo.

Criminal Bar Association vice president Len Anderson said there was a high legal test to meet before a discharge without conviction could be granted, including extensive information about the defendant's background.

"Convictions are having a serious effect on peoples' ablity to travel. Now this is, of course, one of the issues with sportspeople in particular, because they are required to travel. There are a huge number of disadvanatged people that are able to get a career and a life through sports."

In a statement, Wellington Rugby said it delayed an internal investigation while the matter went through the courts and was now helping with Mr Filipo's rehabilitation.

"Wellington Rugby is extremely disappointed in Losi's actions and does not condone such behaviour from any member of the organisation, regardless of their position or status," said chief executive officer Steve Rogers.

"Based on the facts made available to us, and the court judgement that deemed a conviction out of proportion to the gravity of the offence, we continued down the path of providing Losi with a support network to assist in his rehabilitation."

"Wellington Rugby would like to state clearly our organisation does not support violence in any form," the statement said.

The organisation has come under fire for its handling of the incident, with some expressing their disappointment on social media.

Wellington Rugby said the case had created an "understandable reaction among our fan base and the wider public".

Mr Filipo had completed 150 hours of voluntary work with a youth development group, promoting positive behaviour through sport, it said.

It had provided information about the effects of a conviction on a professional rugby player, but was not involved in the court proceedings.

Meanwhile, the decision to keep the player on the team has angered some fans, who have organised a protest before Wellington's game against Southland on Friday.

The protest will take place outside the Westpac Stadium in Wellington, at about 6pm.

Organiser Aron Hailwood said the case was further evidence that there was a serious problem with the culture of rugby and its players.

Mr Hailwood said he was shocked by Wellington Rugby's failure to take action against the player - either by standing him down temporarily, or dropping him altogether.

"They need to do something stronger than just issue a statement saying 'oh, we don't condone violence'. I think they need to demonstrate that with some actions. I would have thought that someone who has assaulted four people isn't the sort of role model or sort of player you'd want to have on your team."

A separate Facebook page, calling for Mr Filipo to be banned from rugby entirely, has also been set up.

Prime Minister John Key said people who undertook acts of violence should be held accountable regardless of their profession.

Mr Key said he could not comment on a specific judicial finding.

The only thing I would say is that violence is unacceptable anywhere, it doesn't matter what your profession is, if you undertake violence, you should be held to the same set of rules as everybody else. Now that is what the judge is thinking, he's been held to account in a way that other people would, but it's ultimately up to the judge to speak to his own judgement."

'Real consequences' for career

The judge who discharged Mr Filipo without convictions said it was a serious assault.

But in his sentencing notes, Judge Bruce Davidson explained why he did not convict Filipo.

"Conventional sentencing would demand a starting point of at least one-and-a-half years imprisonment; such a starting point in my view would be unimpeachable. Obvious mitigating features would include his age (he was only 17 at the time); his lack of previous convictions; his remorse; willingness to undergo restorative justice; the large body of community support he enjoys suggesting an unlikelihood of ever re-offending; his commitment to counselling and voluntary community work and the like. Conventional sentencing would not see the defendant sent to prison but would see him suffer a conviction."

The judge said in his view there were real consequences for Filipo's career as a professional rugby play if convicted.

"I have to ask myself are the courts truly in the business of destroying people's career prospects when there is a safety valve mechanism available.

"To sum up, in my view the offending is in the relatively serious category, both in itself and the kind of offending it is. But there are significant potential consequences. For those reasons, I am prepared to indicate that were the defendant to plead guilty, he would expect to be discharged without conviction," Judge Davidson said.