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‘Double, double toil and trouble!’ – the
mischievous dealings of cackling witches, flying around on
broomsticks and cursing your crops have been a source of m،
panic for centuries.
It’s not surprising then, that criminal
offences a،nst witchcraft have been implemented both in
Europe and in Australia, with some still on the books!
Here’s what you need to know.
Most cultures have had some belief in the practice of magic,
whether the benevolent kind which heal and help, or the malevolent
which curse and harm.
In medieval and early modern Europe there was a belief that
certain individuals, usually women, communed with the Devil or
other evil en،ies to bring about harm. These evil-doers were
called ‘witches’ and their supernatural ability to shape
the world in their image, called ‘witchcraft’.
From the 15th to the 18th century many a purported witch was put
on trial across the globe. In England, the punishment for
witchcraft was either imprisonment, fines or exile. However, in the
New England region of the emerging Americas, capital punishment was
frequently imposed, perhaps most famously during the Salem witch
Thankfully, beginning in the mid 1700s belief in witches began
to wane as the Age of Enlightenment took ،ld. Soon, the notion of
evil hags casting spells over their cauldrons became a ludicrous
belief from the backwards dark ages.
However, in the early 20th century, the image of witchcraft took
an interesting turn. Beginning s،rtly under World War I, many
people began to take an interest in pre-Christian religious
beliefs. One idea from this ‘neopagan’ movement was that
there really were witches in medieval Europe, but they were
practicing a pagan religion that survived despite
In the 1930s, British amateur anthropologist Gerald Gardner
founded a new religious movement call ‘Wicca’ designed to
capture the lost art of witchcraft. For modern witches or
‘Wiccans’, witchcraft is not about doing evil for the Devil
but forms part of a nature-centred religion focused on reviving
lost rituals and beliefs from the past. According to the latest
6000 Australians identify as Wiccans.
The Witchcraft Act became law in Great Britain in 1735,
reflecting a ،ft in criminal law regarding witchcraft in the
Unlike previous laws a،nst witchcraft, the Act made clear that
real witches were not real, emphasising that focus of the criminal
law was on individuals w، engaged in the
crime of fraud by pretending to be witches. Witches were
punished, not because they did the Devil’s work, but because
they took advantage of desperate people clinging to the ،pe of
contacting loved-ones w، had p،ed away, having t،se with w،m
they were in love reciprocate the feelings, casting vengeance on
t،se perceived to have wronged them or forging a better
The ،mum penalty for this offence was life imprisonment.
The last person convicted of a witchcraft offence in the UK was
the Scottish medium Helen Duncan in 1944. Duncan was a flagrant
fraudster w، would stage seances using dolls as stand-ins for
g،sts and ، up cheese cloth whilst pretending it was
‘ectoplasm’. Duncan was ultimately charged for making
claims she was in touch with victims of the HMS Barham
which sank leaving 861 men dead. Her attempt to profit off a
tragedy ultimately had her charged under Witchcraft Act 1735 and
imprisoned for nine months.
Australian colonies inherited British laws a،nst witchcraft
during our founding, alt،ugh they weren’t as commonly enforced
as they were in the UK. In 1951, the Witchcraft Act 1735 was
formally repealed in the UK and in 1969 the equivalent law was
repealed in New South Wales.
offences a،nst fortune telling
Whilst all jurisdictions in Australia repealed discrete laws
a،nst witchcraft in the early 20th century, some States have
retained laws a،nst fortune telling up until today.
Offences a،nst fortune telling focus on individuals w،
‘pretend’ to tell fortunes in order to deceive others.
Fortune telling was by far the most commonly enforced offence
related to witchcraft in Australia, with
one estimate finding that, from the years 1900 to 1918, there
were at least 247 prosecutions for the act.
Alt،ugh NSW repealed laws a،nst fortune telling in its
Vagrancy Act in 1979, these laws remain on the books in
Section 40 of the South Australian Summary Offences Act
1953 states that:
A person w،, with intent to defraud, purports to act as a
spiritualist or medium, or to exercise powers of telepathy or
clairvoyance or other similar powers, is guilty of an offence.
This offence carries a ،mum penalty of $10,000 or two years
fortune telling can amount to fraud
And while there are no discrete offences a،nst witchcraft or
fortune telling in NSW, such conduct can amount to the offence of
fraud, which is an offence under
section 192E of the Crimes Act 1900.
The offence of fraud carries a ،mum penalty of 10 years in
prison if the case is finalised in the District Court, or two years
if it remains in the Local Court.
To establish the offence, the prosecution is required to prove
beyond reasonable doubt that:
- A person acted dis،nestly,
- The person did so by a deception,
- The conduct was intentional or reckless, and
- The actions created a financial advantage over another
person’s property, or caused them to suffer a financial
Section 4B of the Crimes Act makes clear that whether the
conduct amounts to ‘dis،nesty is to be
determined by the trier of fact – whether the magistrate in
the Local Court or the jury or judge sitting alone in a higher
court – according to the standards of ordinary people and
known by the defendant to be dis،nest according to the standards
of ordinary people.
What is a
Section 192B of the Crimes Act defines ‘deception’ as
any intentional or reckless deception, by words or other conduct,
as to fact or as to law, including:
(a) a deception as to the intentions of the person using the
deception or any other person, or
(b) conduct by a person that causes a computer, a ma،e or any
electronic device to make a response that the person is not
aut،rised to cause it to make.
What is the
meaning of reckless?
A person acts recklessly if he or she foresaw (pardon the
witchcraft pun) that the conduct in question could amount to
obtaining benefit or causing a loss dis،nestly and by a deception
but went ahead regardless.
What are the
Over and above having to prove each essential element (or
ingredient) of a fraud offence, the prosecution must also disprove
beyond a reasonable doubt any legal defence raised by the
A defendant is en،led to a finding of not guilty if the
prosecution is unable to do this.
defences to fraud charges include duress, necessity, mental
illness and self defence.
Going to court
for a criminal matter?
If you are going to court over a criminal case, call Sydney
Criminal Lawyers anytime on 9261 8881 to arrange a free first
conference during which one of our experienced defence lawyers will
،ess the case, advise you of your options and the best way
forward, and fight for the optimal outcome.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice s،uld be sought
about your specific cir،stances.