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As an increasing number of Australians invoke their rights as sovereign citizens, a law academic tries to piece together the logic of the movement.

By Marilyn McMahon.

The flawed logic behind the sovereign citizen movement

A Bunnings staff member speaks to an anti-masker citing a “breach of the 1948 Charter of Human Rights”.
A Bunnings staff member speaks to an anti-masker citing a “breach of the 1948 Charter of Human Rights”.
Credit: Instagram

In the video, a woman confidently tells staff it is her “human right” not to wear a mask inside their store. She tells one employee he is “not authorised by the Australian government to even question me”. To another, she cites a “breach of the 1948 Charter of Human Rights”. She describes the footage she is taking as her evidence. “It is my right, as a living woman, to do whatever I want,” she says. “And the Australian Federal Court, Supreme Court, has actually said that even the police have no right to ask for anybody to stop recording in a public place.”

The woman, who became known as “Bunnings Karen”, was relying on legal advice provided by fellow sovereign citizens. As an academic who teaches law, I became interested in what the movement believes about the law and why they think it doesn’t apply to them. So began my journey down the rabbit hole.

What I discovered surprised me. Bunnings Karen doesn’t stand alone. Police have described an increasing trend for sovereign citizens to refuse to comply with lawful requests. When it comes to our courts, there are now nearly 50 reported cases in which sovereign citizens have claimed they don’t have to pay taxes, can lawfully drive a car without a licence, and that paper money is not legal tender. When charged with drug or firearms offences, they claim that courts do not have legitimate authority to hear their cases.

Sovereign citizens have challenged both state and federal government laws at every level, from magistrates courts to the High Court of Australia. Some have bankrupted themselves while asserting what they view as their legal rights. They have litigated about mundane matters such as driver’s licences but also esoteric issues such as whether Magna Carta prevents the making of orders for costs against unsuccessful litigants. They are undeterred by the fact that their arguments have been spectacularly unsuccessful in our courts. While their actions and legal cases are diverse, they are underpinned by two core beliefs: that citizens cannot have their freedoms restricted by governments and that our legal system has no authority over them.

Sovereign citizens don’t accept that governments should be able to regulate their lives. They refer to government, courts and the police as “corporations” and claim that these bodies try to coerce them into “contracts”. Sovereign citizens describe all laws as contracts and erroneously believe it is only when they expressly consent that a contract (law) becomes binding on them.

It is clear sovereign citizens don’t use terms such as “corporation” and “contract” in the same way lawyers do. They employ them pejoratively, to emphasise that they view these arrangements as artificial and lacking real authority. They frequently use a great deal of legal jargon, often incomprehensibly. A favourite claim is that laws and courts are “unconstitutional”. This can involve interpretations that leave lawyers perplexed. For instance, sovereign citizen Wayne Glew refused to pay rates on properties he owned in Western Australia because he believed local councils could not lawfully impose the rates. Glew argued that, under the Australian constitution, state parliaments did not have this authority and therefore could not authorise local governments to do so. He simply dismissed the established principle that the constitutional power to impose taxes (and rates) is not exclusive to the Commonwealth, so that taxation laws can be passed by both state and federal parliaments. Unsurprisingly, Glew lost his challenges to the council’s seizure and selling of his property to pay the more than $300,000 in rates and legal costs that had accumulated.

Another common strategy employed by sovereign citizens is to flatly assert that courts have no authority over them. This was the strategy adopted by Dylan Wilson when he was facing several charges relating to the recent arson at Old Parliament House. At his bail hearing Wilson repeatedly told the magistrate the court had “no jurisdiction”. Similarly, Yvette-Terese Reiman’s challenge to her convictions for unlicensed driving and assaulting police at Tully was partly based on her submission that she was a “living woman” who did not recognise Queensland as a jurisdiction of the Commonwealth of Australia and did not accept she was bound by the statutory laws of that state.

As a law academic, I was perplexed. Why did ordinary citizens feel so free to reject the jurisdiction of our courts? What made them so special? This is when the views of sovereign citizens really started to look like magical thinking. They believe that each person has two aspects: a “legal” (non-corporeal) person and a “living” (or natural, physical) person. Now, it is true that English common law has in the past accepted some human beings could be separated from their legal personality – think of slaves, heinously treated as property rather than people – but that legal status was formally (albeit not effectively) abrogated nearly 200 years ago.

Under contemporary Australian law, any human being is also a legal person. But sovereign citizens distinguish these two aspects of a person. The distinction is said to begin at birth, when the living or natural person is born with innate rights (but exempt from legal responsibilities and laws). The legal personality (or “Strawman/Freeman”) is created when governments begin to create documentation in relation to the individual, such as issuing a birth certificate. The “living person” remains a free, unencumbered agent, whereas the “legal person” is invested with the legal obligations and duties of a citizen.

When confronted with a law with which they disagree, sovereign citizens use this duality to assert that their legal personality does not consent, and that law is not binding on them as a “living” or “natural” person. This is the reason the script frequently used by sovereign citizens when interacting with police instructs them to ask the officer, “Am I a living person?” An affirmative response is taken to indicate an acknowledgement by that officer that they are dealing with a natural (not legal) person over whom they have no authority.

Kym Sweet adopted this strategy when he appeared in Maroochydore District Court, charged with several drug offences. He argued that the criminal laws of Queensland did not apply to him and gave the trial judge an affidavit of truth, a document developed by sovereign citizens in the United States and which is sometimes used in Australia. This is not a traditional affidavit but a political declaration stating that the usual obligations of a citizen, such as the requirement to pay taxes or comply with the law, are not binding on living or natural persons. Predictably, Judge Glen Cash found that the affidavit and Sweet’s claimed distinction between his two personalities had no legal effect whatsoever.

Interestingly, sovereign citizens do not reject all laws or legal documents. Bunnings Karen relied on the “Charter of Human Rights” to support her claim that it was her human right not to wear a mask. While sovereign citizens are generally hostile to laws made by parliaments, they frequently rely on a mishmash of legal documents and treaties including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the constitution of Australia and state constitutions. Sometimes they will refer to common law (but not the common law as lawyers understand it) or declare themselves only bound by maritime law. Other favourite historical documents are Magna Carta (1215) and the Bill of Rights (1688). Neither has the absolute authority that sovereign citizens attribute to them.

Another feature of sovereign citizens is their distinctive use of language and punctuation. These linguistic practices are grounded in their distinction between living and legal personalities. Their living person name often involves dashes and colons, capital and lower-case letters and archaic constructions such as “family/house of”. On the other hand, any document that contains a person’s name in all capital letters (such as a driver’s licence) is said to relate only to the legal person. Kym Sweet adopted this style when he appeared in court in Queensland. In court documents he identified himself as a living person with the name Kym-Anthony and distinguished this from the “straw man” (legal person) KYM ANTHONY SWEET.

Once again, these practices have no legal significance. However, they tend to be a clear signifier of sovereign citizens. The use of a similar style in a letter that Malcolm Roberts wrote to then prime minister Julia Gillard in 2011, before he became a One Nation senator, involving lower-case and capital letters in names and identifying himself as a “living soul”, led to claims that Roberts was a sovereign citizen, which he denies.

Having taken a deep dive into the beliefs of sovereign citizens and having read the cases in which they have been involved, the real issue that interested me is why anyone would accept this nonsensical pseudo law. I think the answer to that question is multifaceted.

The extended use of emergency powers in the pandemic generated discontent with perceived government overreach, leaving a pool of discontented people sympathetic to a movement that is apparently libertarian and hostile to government. Moreover, contemporary social and economic uncertainties have provided fertile ground for the growth of conspiracy theories, and it is unsurprising that QAnon, anti-Semitism and myths about Covid-19 cluster with sovereign citizen beliefs. The internet and social media have not only provided a platform of unprecedented scope for their views but, as the director-general of ASIO, Mike Burgess, recently observed, have sent online radicalisation “into overdrive”.

There is little doubt that populist, alt-right politics and the rejection of experts that we have seen in recent years has emboldened some enthusiastic but legally illiterate or fixated citizens to believe that their analyses of legal issues are better than those of experienced judges. Their videos and publications are filled with resentment at being overlooked and disregarded. The paranoid undertone of many sovereign citizen beliefs also provides a magnet to which people can attach both their anxieties and narcissism, with the vanity videos posted by people like Bunnings Karen validating their views of themselves as freedom fighters.

In short, people are attracted to sovereign citizen views about government and the legal system not because of their logical appeal but because, like other cults, it attracts marginalised people and provides emotional certainty and simple explanations to complex problems. Sovereign citizen beliefs about the Australian legal system are politics crudely presented as law, based on a rejection of the conventional social contract under which each of us surrenders some of our freedoms in exchange for the protection that government and the courts can provide.

The alternative that sovereign citizens present is pessimistic, dystopian and atomistic; it undoubtedly resonates with survivalists and preppers but hardly suits ordinary citizens in a modern community. And it makes me think that when you are down a rabbit hole, all you see is darkness.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 19, 2022 as "Down the rabbit hole".

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Marilyn McMahon is deputy dean at Deakin Law School.

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