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Pseudo-legal movement a growing national concern

The “cult” sovereign citizen movement is growing and changing, a conference has found.

Dec 05, 2023, updated Dec 05, 2023
The sovereign citizen movement was founded in the 1970s, but grew strongly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: AAP

The sovereign citizen movement was founded in the 1970s, but grew strongly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: AAP

Sovereign citizens – or people who think the legal system is not legitimate – are growing in numbers and are introducing their beliefs to people in new and pernicious ways, according to researchers in the field.

The Pseudolaw and the Administration of Justice Conference saw 15 researchers discuss their work, collaborate and share knowledge on pseudo-legal movements around the world.

One speaker, former magistrate David Heilpern, shared his research into online websites offering ways to get out of speeding tickets by false statutory declarations, which is a crime.

“For many people, their first introduction to this philosophy or cult is through traffic law,” Heilpern said.

“Not enough is being done to crack down on these fraudulent websites that are taking people’s money in exchange for nothing, except more grief.”

Bound together by the false idea that government law doesn’t apply to them without their consent, they argue governments are illegitimate and therefore have no legal power, or certain documents or phrases mean that laws do not apply to them.

When Heilpern started on the bench as a magistrate, he would witness pseudo-law arguments once every month in court.

“It was unique and unusual, but as it went on and certainly leading up to COVID, it became a far more regular occurrence,” he said.

“When I was sitting Lismore Court at least once every two weeks, there would be a sovereign citizen-type claim made before me.”

He said a district court judge in Queensland, who also spoke at the conference, confirmed it was still increasing.

“There is a pointy edge to this belief,” Heilpern said.

“That pointy edge is violent.”

A violent edge

Heilpern, who has received hundreds of death threats from pseudo-law adherents, points to incidents in Newcastle, Lithgow and the killing of two Queensland Police officers in 2022 as proof of an increasingly violent movement.

Joe McIntyre, co-convener of the conference, agrees with Heilpern that pseudo-law is a growing problem.

“What struck me was how common these problems were around the globe,” he said.

“Germany, England, North America, Canada and us, this is is a global movement now and it is causing harm all around the globe.”

Wieambilla shooting

The perpetrators of the 2022 Wieambilla shooting of two police officers are examples of the violent results of sovereign citizen beliefs, according to Heilpern. Photo: Nine Network

The New South Wales Police Force and other law enforcement agencies around the world have designated sovereign citizens as a potential terrorist threat, but McIntyre said the movement is dropping the name because they view it as a pejorative.

“We see the exact same theories and legal arguments, they’re just not liking the name sovereign citizens,” he said.

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“What we’re seeing is a new group of gurus and a new type of adherents.”

Avoiding taxes under claims of sovereignty, and fabricating their invalid licence plates, driver’s licences or currency are other common false pseudo-legal arguments used by sovereign citizens.

McIntyre said it is important that people are educated and engaged or they become alienated.

“In that context, it is not unexpected that they’re turning to other things that seem more accessible,” he said.

“But these small number of people are having an utterly disproportionate impact on our legal system.”

A long history

Heilpern said researchers from New Zealand, Canada and Germany all spoke of the same arguments being used, regardless of their country’s legal system.

“Somehow, it is attractive to people all over the world,” he said.

“In an age where not once in any court ever have these views been accepted, despite the fact they keep losing, they keep trying and seem to be building up in larger and larger numbers.”

Sovereign citizens can trace their foundation back to the 1970s in the United States, with similar movements cropping up overseas, but McIntyre said it has become a global movement in the past 20 years.

“We need to be doing more research about the connections to international groups. Is there potential for domestic terrorist groups?” he said.

“If it sounds legitimate, it is really difficult to understand why it’s not legitimate.”

This story first appeared in our sister publication The New Daily

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